French minister under fire in virgin marriage case

(The attractive woman in black, seen here at the inauguration ceremonies, is Rachida Dati, the new Minister of Justice.)


Special to The Globe and Mail

June 5, 2008

PARIS — As the first person of North African origin to hold a seat in the French government, Rachida Dati became an instant symbol of the new openness that President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was trying to encourage. Now her political career is threatened by her response to a national debate over how much French law should be influenced by its minorities, based on a court decision that reflects Ms. Dati’s own experience as a young Muslim woman struggling to make her way out of a ghetto north of the French city of Lyon.

The controversy began last week when a Paris newspaper revealed that a court in the northern city of Lille had annulled the marriage of a Muslim couple because the bride, 20, had lied to her husband, 32, about her virginity.

The judge did not cite the couple’s religion or the bride’s previous sexual experience but ruled that, under the French civil code, the young woman had breached the marital contract by being untruthful about what her husband considered “an essential quality decisive for [his] consent.” Feminists, philosophers and politicians of all stripes have united to condemn the decision as a step backward for equality and a dangerous step toward incorporating religious beliefs into the laws of a proudly secular state.

Women’s Minister Valerie Létard said the decision was a “regression of the status of women.” Fadela Amara, the minister in charge of France’s suburbs and herself a Muslim, called it a “fatwa against the emancipation of women.” Others warned the judgment would put pressure on young Muslim women in Europe to undergo surgery to reconstitute their hymens before they marry.

Although the Muslim community is growing throughout Europe, the issue of how well they have integrated has a special resonance in France, which has insisted that Muslims and other minorities adapt to the French culture rather than try to impose their own beliefs on French society. The discussion over this case has focused on fears that Islamist beliefs are slowly making their influence felt.

Muslim leaders have largely been silent. But thinkers such as Dounia Bouzar, a Muslim writer and philosopher known for her defence of modern Islam, questioned whether the same decision would have been made if the couple were Catholic. She said the judgment was a “victory for fundamentalists and for those who look at Islam as an archaic religion that treats women badly.”

Chantal Delsol, a Catholic neo-conservative philosopher, argued that the court ruling showed “the extent to which our institutions can be derailed by communities that do not subscribe to our convictions of liberty and equality.”

Ms. Dati, the daughter of Muslim North African parents, was isolated in refusing to ask for an appeal, arguing that an annulment is “a way of protecting someone who wishes to be free of a marriage.”

Legal experts say the appeals court will likely give in to public pressure and overturn the decision to annul the marriage. And that will have disastrous consequences for the young bride, her lawyer says, because the couple will be obliged to go through the often lengthy process of getting a divorce.

Charles-Edouard Maugersaid his client is in a “completely desperate” mental state because of the debate over the annulment and has stopped most of her daily activities. “She understands the controversy in society, but she feels she has become trapped.”

Faced with increasing pressure from other members of the government and accusations from all political parties that she was being soft on Islam, Ms. Dati finally gave in this week and asked the public prosecutor to appeal the decision on the grounds that “it could be said to have wider significance than the relationship between two individuals.”

Ms. Dati, who had little political experience when she was named Justice Minister, has been increasingly criticized in the French news media for mishandling this and other key issues and for her volatile personality. At least 10 of her advisers have quit. In the past few weeks Mr. Sarkozy and members of his government have started to show their displeasure. Last month, she was excluded from a meeting of Mr. Sarkozy’s closest cabinet members and, this week, Prime Minister François Fillon stepped in and answered questions that should have been directed at Ms. Dati.

In the National Assembly this week, Socialist Party member Arnaud Montebourg called for her resignation. “This is the story of a likeable personality who unfortunately is not up to the job,” he said.


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