French court overturns marriage annulment

November 17, 2008 12:00 am

, DOUAI, November 17 – A French court on Monday quashed a decision to annul a marriage after a Muslim husband discovered his bride was not a virgin, and which had sparked a huge outcry in France.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government had asked the appeal court in Douai in northern France to review the ruling handed down in April, touching off protests from rights groups, feminists and much of the political class.

The decision meant that the marriage sealed in a civil ceremony in July 2006 in the small northern town of Mons-en-Baroeul remained valid, even though both spouses have asked the court to release them from their vows.

The couple have two months to decide whether they want to launch a higher appeal.

"This ruling is very worrying," the husband’s lawyer Xavier Labbee said. "Our individual liberties are seriously threatened."

The husband, a computer expert in his 30s whose name was not made public, sought the annulment after realising his bride was not a virgin on the night of their marriage.

His suspected that his new bride, also a Muslim, was not a virgin on their wedding night because the bedsheets were not stained with blood.

His wife, a nurse in her 20s, admitted to him she had had pre-marital sex.

A tribunal in the northern city of Lille granted the annulment, based on the man’s contention that the woman’s virginity was a "determining factor" in his decision to marry her and that she had lied to him.

It said he had been misled about an "essential quality" of his bride-to-be.

Under French law, a marriage can be annulled if there has been "an error about the person or the essential qualities of the person."

But the Douai appeals court ruled that the lie did not constitute "valid grounds for the annulment of a marriage" as it did not touch on an essential quality of his bride.

Monday’s ruling stated that the "absence" of virginity "had no bearing on the marriage," therefore quashing the right to annul.

The original ruling drew furious protests from rights groups, who slammed it as a victory for religious fundamentalists and a blow to the emancipation of women that set a dangerous legal precedent.

Urban affairs minister Fadela Amera, born in France to Algerian Muslim parents, described it as a "fatwa against the emancipation of women."

Some 150 European parliament members wrote to French Justice Minister Rachida Dati, denouncing it as an unacceptable encroachment of religion in the public sphere.

Dati finally ordered an appeal in the face of strong protest, but she continued to insist the ruling was legally sound, based on a breach of trust between the pair, not the issue of virginity itself.

Lawyers for both parties had requested at a hearing in September that the annulment be maintained.

The wife, who had initially opposed the annulment, told the court she had reversed her stance.

State prosecutors had said they were not against allowing the split if it were possible to replace the "discriminatory motive" of loss of virginity with a more general one, such as mistaken identity.

The couple, of Moroccan origin, have since moved away from northern France.

The justice minister also warned the case should not be used to stigmatise France’s five-million-strong Muslims, Europe’s largest community.


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