Civil Liberties

What's the Matter With France?


A.P. reports that French politicians across the political spectrum are outraged by a judge's decision (noted this morning by Katherine Mangu-Ward) to grant a recently married Muslim couple an annulment because the bride misrepresented herself as a virgin. "The ruling ending the Muslim couple's union," A.P. says, "has stunned France and raised concerns that the country's much-cherished secular values are losing ground to cultural traditions from its fast-growing immigrant communities." I don't get it, just as I did not understand why so many Frenchmen thought it was imperative to ban headscarves from schools. This case seems like a straightforward application of a contract, albeit one constrained by laws regulating marriage:

In its ruling, the court concluded the woman had misrepresented herself as a virgin and that, in this particular marriage, virginity was a prerequisite.

But in treating the case as a breach of contract, the ruling was decried by critics who said it undermined decades of progress in women's rights. Marriage, they said, was reduced to the status of a commercial transaction in which women could be discarded by husbands claiming to have discovered hidden defects in them.

The court decision "is a real fatwa against the emancipation and liberty of women. We are returning to the past," said Urban Affairs Minister Fadela Amara, the daughter of immigrants from Muslim North Africa.

Notably, the wife, presumably suffering from false consciousness, joined the husband in seeking the annulment and has no desire to challenge the outcome or to publicize the case:

The hitch is that both the young woman and the man at the center of the drama are opposed to an appeal, according to their lawyers. The names of the woman, a student in her 20s, and the man, an engineer in his 30s, have not been disclosed.

The young woman's lawyer, Charles-Edouard Mauger, said she was distraught by the dragging out of the humiliating case. In an interview on Europe 1 radio, he quoted her as saying: "I don't know who's trying to think in my place. I didn't ask for anything….I wasn't the one who asked for the media attention, for people to talk about it, and for this to last so long."

Yet critics of the ruling, including the justice minister and the prime minister, insist it must be challenged because it represents a defeat for feminism and secularism. Evidently women's freedom must be restricted to protect their freedom: They cannot be allowed to enter into whatever contracts they choose or make their own legal decisions because they might misuse those rights. Just to be clear, that is the feminist position. As for the secularist imperative, which in France is strong enough to override the free exercise of religion, I do not understand how it can co-exist with legal principles that empower aggrieved religious groups to punish people for speech that offends them. How can the same country that fears Muslims are taking over when they insist on wearing headscarves or marrying virgins prosecute a novelist for contempt of Islam?

[Thanks to Mark Tarnowski for the tip.]