Around the world today, many hundreds of thousands of people – if not more – encounter difficulties affecting the rights that they enjoy as citizens of their state. Their situation is commonly described as one of “ineffective nationality” and it can have dire consequences. Indeed, some of those affected have been stamped as “de facto stateless” by different commentators because they are seen to experience, in practice, many of the same problems faced by people who actually hold no nationality at all. Yet this perspective and its accompanying label are highly problematic in both a conceptual and legal sense, for a variety of reasons which I will not go into here. Instead, it was while making plans to draft an article on the conundrum of “de facto statelessness” that I stumbled across a news story that inspired me to write this blog about a related yet distinct phenomenon…
The item was about Gerard Depardieu, one of France’s most famous and successful actors. At least, he was still French – to the best of my knowledge – at the time of writing. The most recent buzz of media attention surrounding Depardieu relates to his acts of protest against the country’s decision to crank up the rate of taxation for people earning over a million euros a year to 75% (a policy since overturned by France’s Constitutional Court). Depardieu felt that given the 145 million euros he had already handed over in taxes since he started his acting career at the age of 14, he had already contributed his fair share to the state’s coffers and disagreed with being forced to now surrender three-quarters of his future earnings. So, he purchased a house in Belgium in order to avoid the new French tax, by establishing residence abroad. When this move was criticised as “shabby” by the French Prime Minister, Depardieu declared his intent to renounce his French citizenship in response to this insult and as an objection to the government’s tax policy which punished “success, creation and talent”. Although it is unclear whether Depardieu has made any formal attempt to give up his French nationality – his intention to renounce was expressed in an open letter to a French newspaper, which is clearly not the regular procedure set by French law for this purpose – the media was quick to point out that France will not allow a person to renounce their citizenship if this will leave them with no nationality (in accordance with international standards for the avoidance of statelessness). Whether to pre-empt this problem or in a separate move entirely, it now appears that Depardieu has taken up Vladimir Putin’s personal offer to extend him Russian citizenship. A presidential decree has reportedly been signed granting Depardieu Russian nationality. According to a BBC news report, Depardieu has long been a “friend” of Russia, as evidenced by his appearance in commercials for a Russian bank, his portrayal of Rasputin in a 2011 Franco-Russian film production and his assistance in fund-raising for a children’s hospital in St. Petersburg.
There are a great many elements to this juicy news story that provoke comment. I would like to focus on this last point: that Depardieu has somehow demonstrated his ties to the country through what could just as easily be described as a limited number of professional engagements, that happen to have a link with Russia. Yes, many countries’ nationality legislation allow for the possibility of extending citizenship to people who have rendered outstanding services to the state and no, this is not the only case of someone with proven talents, fame or fortune being offered nationality as an incentive or reward. But, what is the meaning of such a nationality which stems from a point of convenience or (selfish) interest on the part of the individual or the state, rather than the “genuine link” that usually underlies citizenship (see the oft-cited Nottenbohm case of the International Court of Justice) – e.g. birth on the territory, descent from a national or long-term residence. In Depardieu’s case, the result is almost the opposite of the more common scenario which has often been described, as I already mentioned, as “de facto statelessness”. He has none of the enduring ties upon which nationality is usually founded, yet he can reap its benefits, while people who have a genuine, indisputable and long-standing connection to their country of nationality may still be denied the benefits of their citizenship.
This puzzle set me to ponder other cases where citizenship is based on a highly tenuous link and a parallel to another recently reported situation came to mind: the issuance of Comoros passports to UAE’s stateless Bidoon population. In June last year, the media reported that at least a thousand of these long-term stateless residents of the Gulf state – many denied nationality despite a genuine connection – had taken up Comoros nationality and been given a passport. Paradoxically, these documents were being used to secure access to various rights and facilities in UAE rather than to relocate to or exercise citizenship rights with respect to the Comoros. Quite what the value of this spontaneously acquired nationality is, in a state the persons in question have never visited and may have difficulty locating in an atlas, is highly questionable. Can a citizenship that is held on paper but is based on such tenuous links and is seemingly unaccompanied by the traditional set of rights even be deemed a nationality for the purposes of international law? Are the Bidoon concerned no longer stateless? These are complex questions that only serve to demonstrate, as does Depardieu’s case, that the nexus between nationality, genuine connection and the exercise of citizenship rights can be unpredictable.