By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 26, 2008
MONS-EN-BAROEUL, France -- It was a match made in heaven, and both families approved. The groom was a computer engineer, the bride a nursing student. Children of Moroccan immigrants, they had thrived in French society and seemed at home with its ways.
But on their wedding night, the groom discovered that his bride was not the virgin she had said she was. He stormed out of the bridal chamber. His father, outraged, said the marriage was off. That same night, he returned the young woman to her family home.
The drama in this middle-class suburb of apartment blocks and supermarkets, on the eastern edge of Lille in northern France, could have remained a private family affair -- that is what its main protagonists desperately wanted. But instead, it set off a legal struggle with strong political undertones and an explosion of outrage by media-savvy activists in Paris. In the end, it became a parable for the strain France has encountered in absorbing the more than 5 million Muslims, about 8 percent of the population and growing, who have made this country their home.
As part of a national round of soul-searching, French leaders are recognizing with unusual frankness that the country needs to do more to promote integration of Muslims and other children of immigrants. President Nicolas Sarkozy last week named Yazid Sabeg, a successful businessman born to Algerian immigrants, to head a government department assigned to get more minority candidates into politics and more minority students into the elite academies that turn out France's leadership class.
"We must change," Sarkozy declared.
Amar Lasfar, president of the Islamic League of the North, said part of the problem is that only now have French leaders come to grips with the idea that many Muslims are no longer temporary migrant workers but citizens, like the couple here, who intend to spend their lives in France. "Nobody was prepared for this," he said at the Lille mosque where he is rector.
Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, has gone further than his predecessors. He named Rachida Dati, the daughter of Algerian immigrants, as his justice minister; Fadela Amara, also of Algerian heritage, as a junior minister for urban affairs; and Rama Yade, who was born in Senegal, as a junior minister to promote human rights abroad. Dati's ascension marked the first time such a senior post went to a minority figure with visible roots in North Africa.
Although not all immigrants in France are Muslims, the group has generated the most sensitive problems, particularly at a time when the country is battling threats from Islamist extremists inspired by al-Qaeda. At the same time Sarkozy was announcing his integration initiative, for instance, police arrested seven people suspected of belonging to radical Islamist groups, including a branch of al-Qaeda in North Africa.
Moreover, even Muslims born in France have often clung to traditions that set them apart, to the resentment of conservatives reluctant to see the country's ethnic stock evolve or its Christian traditions diluted. After an impassioned political debate and several judicial rulings over the past decade, Muslim girls were forbidden to wear veils in public schools.
Lasfar said the solution is for French people to embrace such Islamic traditions as an addition to their society, not a threat.
Ismail Kawashi, the son of Algerian immigrants who identifies himself as a "modern Muslim," agreed but said Muslims here also have to respect the culture of their adopted country. Insisting on virginity for marriage, for instance, is "shameful" in this day and age, he said as he motored his taxi around Mons-en-Baroeul.
But such live-and-let-live attitudes have not been embraced by all. In the tension generated by Sarkozy's remarks, vandals set fire to the entrance of a mosque in Lyon on Saturday. This month, 500 tombstones of Muslim French army veterans were painted with racist slogans at Notre Dame de Lorette Cemetery near Arras, southwest of here, including insults aimed at Dati.
Dati, a glamorous figure with a penchant for haute couture and expensive jewelry, was at the center of the storm over the unhappy wedding in Mons-en-Baroeul. In large part, her actions as minister were part of the incident's transformation from provincial family feud to national cause.
The wedding took place July 8, 2006. Three weeks later, the groom, a naturalized citizen, went to court seeking an annulment. He based his argument on French law that says a marriage is invalid if there is an error concerning "the essential qualities" of one of the partners. The bride, a French-born citizen, associated herself with the annulment request; her lawyer explained that she just wanted to be done with the mess.
The procedure wound its way through the court system unnoticed until, in April this year, the Lille High Court handed down an annulment. The groom, judges said, clearly considered virginity to be an essential quality in his bride.
According to the groom's lawyer, Xavier Labbée, things should have remained there. The bride, the groom and their families considered the ruling the best possible outcome given the circumstances, he said. Both young people, whose names were sealed, were free to pursue their lives separately.
In fact, the groom had moved to a small town in the Alps, where he was quietly at work, and the bride was near graduation as a nurse in Paris. Then a juridical review published a scholarly analysis of the case. The rundown was noticed by an enterprising reporter and before long the news hit Paris -- hard.
Dati, who herself had a marriage annulled as a young woman and now is about to give birth but is not married, at first pronounced the decision reasonable, saying it had nothing to do with Islam. Both parties to the marriage wanted the annulment, she noted, adding: "This young woman probably wanted to be separated pretty fast as well."
But in the Paris world of political activism and careful posturing, she was alone. From the left and right came a barrage of criticism, suggesting that the decision had given French legal sanction to a Muslim's demand that his bride be a virgin. Elizabeth Badinter, a longtime women's rights campaigner, said she felt "shame" that such a court ruling could be handed down in France.
"This ends up simply pushing many young Muslim girls into hospitals to have their hymen reconstituted," she said.
Laurence Rossignel of the Socialist Party's secretariat for women's rights qualified the decision as "amazing."
"It violates the constitutional principles of equality between men and women and of nondiscrimination, because it cannot be rendered except against a woman," she added. "It makes a mockery of the rights of women over their own bodies and to live their sexuality freely, the way men do."
Dati was criticized even from within Sarkozy's own party, the Union for a Popular Movement. Patrick Devedjian, then its secretary general, decried what he said was reintroduction of the Muslim tradition of "repudiation" of a bride into French law. Valérie Letard, junior minister for solidarity, called it "a blow against the integrity of women."
Prime Minister François Fillon, Dati's direct superior, said he did not want the decision to become jurisprudence and suggested that he would go as high as France's supreme court if necessary to get it overturned.
Faced with the outcry, Dati reversed course and ordered prosecutors in Lille to appeal. "The annulment of a marriage by the High Court in Lille has generated a lively debate about our society," the Justice Ministry explained in a statement. "This case surpasses the relationship between two people and concerns all citizens of our country, notably women."
Sailing with the political winds, the regional Douai Appeals Court overturned the decision last month, saying virginity should not be considered an essential quality of the bride under French law. In effect, the bride and groom were remarried.
Higher appeal seemed likely to prove futile given the political atmosphere. The only reasonable recourse, legal scholars said, is divorce, a path lawyers said could dissolve the marriage again quickly.
Neither spouse has announced what they will do. But the legal situation is complicated by the groom's marriage to another woman after the annulment in April, Lasfar said. In addition, the bride has brought suit against the groom for lack of respect, citing the public airing of her non-virginity.
Labbée, embittered by the outcry, blamed sensation-seeking journalists and politically correct Paris activists for what he called an unjustified reversal. The uproar, he said in a telephone conversation, has damaged two young people who just wanted to get on with their lives, outside the glare of commentary by people who do not know what they are talking about.
"They are ignorant and they didn't understand," he said of the protesters in Paris and the politicians who endorsed their outrage. "And because the two were Muslim, they got all worried about it. It was a man deceived by his wife, and now the whole planet is aware of it."