Divorce, or Else...

Foreigners living in polygamy in France no longer have the right to obtain a legal residence card, ever since the second Pasqua law [introduced by France’s then-interior minister of justice, Charles Pasqua, who sought to stem immigration to France—WPR] was passed in 1993. The enforcement of this provision has placed certain wives of African immigrants in a dire situation: Either they must separate from their husbands and seek to live on their own, or else they run the risk of not having their residence papers renewed. But separation, which some women would want, runs up against the difficulty of finding housing.

In St.-Denis [a poor Paris suburb], five women are living as squatters in an empty building after leaving their polygamous husbands’ homes. Kandidiatou, a 30-year-old Malian woman, bears witness to her experience as an abandoned co-spouse and the impossibility of being in a situation of this kind in France.

President Jacques Chirac had only tough words to say about African immigrants in his famous speech in 1991 [when he blamed them for noise and kitchen odors]: He pointed the finger at families with one father, three or four wives, and some 20 kids, who collect 50,000 francs in social benefits without working. And so it was that the question of polygamous marriage burst forth in French political debate.

Two years later, the Pasqua law gave a very blunt response to this question: Polygamous foreigners, who had heretofore enjoyed relative tolerance, could eventually keep only one wife in France. Approved by Parliament by a wide margin, at a time when the strength of the [extreme right-wing anti-immigration party] National Front was weighing heavy in French political debate, the Pasqua law was in line with official reports stating that the eradication of polygamy among immigrant populations was a necessary condition for their integration into French society. These new rules were also a response to the concerns of some African women’s associations. Many denounced polygamy, which does not necessarily rhyme with autonomy.

Far from it.

Often, it is the husband who collects the benefits and then redistributes them. Moreover, the living conditions of these families can be very difficult. Housing, often overcrowded, deteriorates very quickly; rivalries between co-spouses are said to generate levels of tension that sometimes turn tragic. Some women arrive at the hospital with a broken arm or bruises. Others try to commit suicide.

To put an end to this situation, the Pasqua law set up a kind of paperwork blackmail: If a polygamous foreigner wishes to obtain a legal residence card, he has no other choice than to live with only one of his co-spouses, while the other wives must eventually leave the conjugal domicile. In administrative language it is called “de-cohabitating.”

But, in order to “de-cohabitate,” these women must find a place to live. In the Paris region, where housing is scarce, their searches are often fruitless. These women are immigrants, alone with several children, with few resources. Such a profile scares off a lot of sources of help, both private and public.

Nonetheless, some public housing associations have seized the initiative and help their members in polygamous relationships to separate from their husbands. But these initiatives are rare. As a result, some women leave their husbands and, failing to find housing, live as squatters. The government is now aware of these difficulties. For this reason it issued a circular last year to support women who leave polygamous households. Beyond housing, these families run up against another problem: access to civil rights.

Certain local administrations have enforced the Pasqua law very vigorously. In the first years they revoked the legal residence cards of polygamous foreigners, sometimes for an extended period of time, although these individuals could not be deported because they were the parents of children with French citizenship. But without papers, these adults were no longer authorized to work. Consequently, whole families found themselves in abject poverty, even though the husband had lived in France for 20 years. Sometimes the government meddled in the private lives of families to see whether the wives had actually de-cohabitated. Djeneba, a 42-year-old Senegalese woman who lives in Val-de-Marne, was summoned to appear at the police security agency. “I was asked all sorts of questions: ‘Do you know that polygamy is prohibited? Do you get along well together?’ ” she recounts.

Sometimes it happens that de-cohabitated women are required to produce certificates of divorce. But there are many wives who are opposed to the idea of getting divorced. Furthermore, to require divorce goes against a principle of private international law, i.e., personal status. International private law recognizes the validity of polygamous unions sanctioned in the country of origin. At the Ministry of the Interior, officials insisted that the circular does not oblige a polygamist to get a divorce if he wants to receive a 10-year legal residence card. He can certainly maintain his marital relationship with more than one spouse and still live in France, but only one of those spouses is allowed to live in France.