‘Not even in wartime’: French expats blast Covid ban on returning home

·4-min read

French citizens living outside the European Union are now required to produce a “compelling” motive to be allowed into their home country – a highly restrictive situation some say has turned them into "second-class citizens".

When European countries scrambled to shut their borders amid the first wave of Covid-19, France ranked among the most proactive countries in its efforts to repatriate nationals stranded abroad.

Close to a year later, France has tightened its borders again to halt the spread of new coronavirus variants – this time shutting out many of its own citizens too.

On January 31, French officials began implementing tough new restrictions aimed at curbing international travel – and, with it, the spread of more contagious variants. This has effectively resulted in a disparity of treatment between French nationals living in the EU and those outside the 27-member bloc.

Under the new rules, French nationals who are resident in France or another EU country can return home provided they agree to take PCR tests on either side of a seven-day isolation period.

Those who do not have EU residency, however, can only enter France if they produce evidence of a compelling motive, such as the death of a loved one, a medical emergency or a legal summons.

Second class

Such a distinction is both discriminatory and illegal, says Yan Chantrel, an elected councillor of the National Assembly of French Citizens Abroad, who has launched a petition calling for the withdrawal of a measure that “infringes on fundamental liberties and international law”.

“These restrictions create a profound sense of injustice,” Chantrel said in an interview with FRANCE 24, lamenting a “brutal and unprecedented” decision.

“Why are our fellow Frenchmen and women in Europe allowed back home when we’re not?” he asked. “Not even in wartime has France ever refused to let its citizens return.”

Chantrel argues there are “as many ‘compelling’ motives for travel as there are individuals”, ranging from the banal – a leak at a holiday home – to situations of “extreme psychological distress”. The latter, he says, can include pregnant women in need of family support, fathers who are yet to see their newborn baby, parents desperate to reach an isolated child or people unable to bid farewell to a dying friend.

The councillor has received hundreds of messages from French expats “outraged” by the new rules, and his petition has already garnered more than 17,000 signatures.

Supporters include Alexandre Cournol, the head of a Washington-based association of French expatriates, who says French citizens abroad are merely asking for equal rights.

“We’re not after any privilege, we simply want to be put on an equal footing with French nationals in Europe,” Cournol told FRANCE 24. “We’re happy to comply with health guidelines, but we don’t accept being treated like second-class citizens.”

Liberty, but not at any price

Some French nationals abroad are pursuing legal avenues to overturn the travel restrictions.

Writing in the Figaro newspaper last week, a group of French expatriates with links to the conservative Les Républicains party flagged the “legal and constitutional implications” of the government’s measures. Depending on their place of residence, they wrote, “French nationals are, de facto, no longer equal in terms of their rights.”

Another group has filed a complaint with the Conseil d'Etat, France’s highest administrative court. Writing on Twitter, their lawyer Pierre Ciric said the restrictions undermine “French citizen's absolute and inalienable right to return home”.

A ruling in the case is expected early next month.

Meanwhile, even those whose “compelling” motives for travel have been accepted by the government are finding it hard to travel to and from France due to a lack of flights.

Airlines have drastically reduced flights following the new travel restrictions. According to Chantrel, they are also reluctant to accept some passengers bound for France, fearing they will be forced to fly them back and pay a hefty fine.

But not all expatriates are up in arms. In online comments to Chantrel’s petition, some have voiced support for the restrictions, agreeing with the government that they are necessary to keep coronavirus variants at bay.

“We know perfectly well that travel and family gatherings are the main spreaders of Covid-19,” wrote one commentator. “So let us be patient, rigorous and then perhaps we can discuss liberty once again. It is indeed precious, but not at any price.”

This article was translated from the original in French.