When a Muslim woman was fined late last month in Nantes, France for driving while wearing a full face veil, the issue of polygamy burst into the spotlight when it was revealed that her husband had three other “wives.”
The incident has re-opened the debate in Europe over the dilemma faced by European governments with, on the one hand, aging native populations and below-replacement birth rates, and, on the other, burgeoning Muslim immigrant populations with customs incompatible with existing laws.
Objections to his alleged polygamy were answered by the woman’s husband, Lies Hebbadj, an Algerian-born Muslim, who pointed out that, in accordance with modern French customs, he does not have four wives but one wife and four mistresses, plus 12 children between them.
“If one can be stripped of one’s French nationality for having mistresses, then many French could lose theirs,” Mr. Hebbadj, a halal butcher, said after consulting his legal counsel. “As far as I know, mistresses are not forbidden, neither in France, nor in Islam.”
Hebbadj reportedly became a naturalized French citizen after he married Anne, his French wife. But French Interior Minister, Brice Hortefeux, has said that Hebbadj could have his citizenship revoked if he his found to be practicing polygamy. Authorities are investigating whether he was legally married to the other women in civil ceremonies, and whether he was profiting from single mother welfare benefits the other women may have been receiving fraudulently.
The incident has touched off a small storm of controversy, with politicians accusing each other of attempting to make political gains on its heels.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has backed an attempt to ban the public wearing of Islamic face veils such as the burqa or niqab, seen as an expression of a radical interpretation of Islam and a symbol of rejection of mainstream French society. But some activists have said that the issue of polygamy is more serious, citing the need to protect women from exploitation. The Associated Press quoted Jean-Marie Ballo, founder of the group Nouveaux Pas that helps women escape from polygamous situations. Ballo, himself the child of a polygamous situation, said that Islamic men practice polygamy in order to receive income from their “wives’” state benefits.
“They practice polygamy just for that,” he said. “I’d go so far as to say that polygamists here (in France) are breeding for cash.” Ballo is the son of Malian immigrants whose father and grandfather were polygamous. He told AP that his group helps women and children find housing, benefits and jobs apart from their polygamous “husbands,” a process known in France as “decohabiting.” He said his group has helped 26 women and 145 children.
Ballo said that polygamy and the raising of children in communal situations is not compatible with “western” society. “Polygamy is not at all adapted to the context of life in the West,” said Ballo. “There are conflicts, catastrophic hygienic conditions. Kids do poorly in school as there is nowhere to study.”
With five million Muslims, France has the largest European Muslim population, the majority of whom are immigrants from African countries. The National Consultative Commission on Human Rights reported in 2006 that at least 180,000 people, including children, are living in polygamous situations in France, despite the country specifically banning the practice in 1993.
While President Sarkozy has said he wants to return France to its former “basic values,” the country has fully embraced the post-1960s social and sexual revolution, that emphasizes “pluralism” and moral “diversity” over uniform moral values, leaving leaders in a quandary when attempting to deal with social breakdown and cultural clashes.
France is among the world’s top 20 countries for divorce, with 38.3 per cent of all marriages breaking up, according to the group Americans for Divorce Reform.
Writing on Reuters’ Religion blog, Tom Heneghan, religion editor for Reuters, pointed out that the keeping of mistresses in France has become so open that it raised few eyebrows in 1996 when former President François Mitterrand’s longtime mistress and their daughter very publicly walked in his funeral procession.