an area of the map for world news.
April 2002 issue of
World Press Review
(VOL. 49, No. 4)
Divorce, or Else...
Bertrand, Le Monde (liberal), Paris, France, Feb. 11,
in polygamy in France no longer have the right to obtain a legal
residence card, ever since the second Pasqua law [introduced
by Frances then-interior minister of justice, Charles
Pasqua, who sought to stem immigration to FranceWPR]
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 womens 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
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.