01/25/2012 04:40 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

A French President Not Born in France? Possible, But Not Likely in 2012!

Eva Joly, presidential candidate for the green party in France, was born in Norway. 
She has been attacked by the right wing for her strong Norwegian accent and her foreign origins.

"I don't think this lady has a very far-reaching culture of French traditions, of French history and of French values." Last summer, this critical statement by the French Prime Minister François Fillon triggered a controversy on the dual citizenship of Eva Joly, presidential candidate for the Green party in France. The prime minister had touched a nerve. There is a paradox here. In France, a foreign born citizen can stand for president. But when it happens, it's not all plain sailing. Eva Joly, 69, is the elected candidate for the Green party and she was born in Norway. She came to live in France when she was 20, married a Frenchman, had her children in France and worked almost all her life as a magistrate in our country. But people still doubt her capacity to lead France.

The very terms of this debate probably sound weird for an American audience. A French presidential candidate, not born in France? Yet, it's true: Unlike America, our Constitution allows naturalized citizens to run for president. In fact, having been brought up in France, I was a bit surprised to learn that the United States, considered here as a model of multiculturalism, still forbids "former foreigners" to run for the presidential election. I read some articles about Governor Schwarzenegger's "case." In spite of his amazing American career, he'll never be able to run for president of the U.S.A. Why? Because his parents were Austrian. And I thought "poor him" -- "Schwarzy" is probably as American as one can be.

This difference between our constitutions can easily be explained. The American one, (which states in its article 2, section 1 that "no person except a natural born citizen, or a Citizen of the United States at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President") was drawn up at the end of the 18th century. Our Constitution is younger - it only dates back to the 1950s -- and it has evolved a lot to reflect new political and social realities. Indeed, many politicians in France were born in former colonies: Ségolène Royal, the unlucky Socialist candidate in the 2007 election, was born in Senegal; two current presidential candidates were born in Morocco.

But behind this window dressing of open-mindedness, France remains ambivalent about the question of nationality. This is exactly why we're currently having this debate about Eva Joly, the first presidential candidate in French history to possess dual citizenship. On the 14th of July, our National Day, she put forward the outrageous idea that maybe -- maybe -- the military parade had become a little bit out of date... This was a proposition voted on and agreed by all the members of her party. Yet, she was the one attacked on her supposed "francophobia."

There are many other examples. When French President Sarkozy married the Franco-Italian model Carla Bruni, some people asked the first lady to give up her Italian citizenship. When he was elected, some media even reported Nicolas Sarkozy as the first president of "foreign origins" -- his father was Hungarian... But he himself was born in Paris.

Yet, French people could -- and may one day -- elect a president born outside France. With Eva Joly, some proud defenders of our language feel threatened by her accent. However, it's likely the real objections about her abilities lie elsewhere. Many people voted for her green party in previous elections. In the 2009 European elections, the Ecologists even polled 3.63 percent of the vote in France and won the same number of European parliament seats as the Socialists. But in 2012, there's no way these people will vote for Eva Joly. This has nothing to do with her Norwegian origins. It has to do with her radical and very different view of ecology, her strange position about alliances with the other left-wing parties and her uptight personality. Even in her own party, some members said they would vote for the Socialist candidate instead of her.

The "Joly case" doesn't mean French people will never vote for a naturalized citizen. It just means they need to find a competent one to vote for.