French Marriage Annulled for Lack of Virginity

On April 1st 2008, a first instance court of Lille (Northern France) set aside a marriage because the wife had concealed to her husband that she was not a virgin.

The husband found out on July 8th, 2006, that is the night of the wedding. Contrary to what she had told him, the wife was not a virgin. That was not only a problem for him, but for the whole family, so much so that his parents had been waiting outside seeping mint tea so that, at some point, they could hear the good news, if not see the bedsheets with blood on them. At 4 am, he went to see them, but only to say that there was no blood. She may have recognized then that she had lied, or did shortly after. The groom’s father brought her back to her parents, saying that his family was now dishonored. Two weeks later, the husband initiated proceedings to set aside the marriage.

What does this judgment have to do with conflicts? Arguably nothing, as the newly wed were both French nationals and the wedding had taken place in Roubaix, France. But the reason why the virginity of the wife was a big deal to both her husband and his family was because they were all muslims, and French muslims are overwhelmingly of Algerian or Morrocan origin (by far the biggest groups of immigrants in France). Origin of people is taboo in France, so it is not known whether this couple is indeed third generation immigrants from North Africa. But chances that they are are very high. Indeed, it is customary for the family to wait to see the blood on the sheets during the night in North African weddings. (Update: it has now been reported by several sources that the spouses were of Morrocan origin)

So after all, this case is not completely unrelated to conflicts. The demand for virginity was the result of a social norm governing a group of people. These people may be French nationals leaving in France, and thus entirely subject to French law, but the norm governing their community is of foreign origin. A not so uncommon case of legal pluralism.

Now, the interesting question was: how do you enforce this social norm? And that where the case gets interesting: by finding an equivalent French legal norm and, most importantly, a remedy attached to that French norm.

Under French law, marriages can be set aside when there has been a “mistake on a material quality of the person” (French Civil Code, art. 180). The doctrine was famously applied in cases where the spouse had served jail time, or where he could not/would not have sexual relationships. Here, the court of Lille held that the mistake was that the bride was not a virgin, and annulled the marriage, noting that the wife was in agreement with the decision.

Here is an excerpt of the judgment in French:

[…] Attendu qu’il importe de rappeler que l’erreur sur les qualités essentielles du conjoint suppose non seulement de démontrer que le demandeur a conclu le mariage sous l’empire d’une erreur objective, mais également que cette erreur était déterminante de son consentement.

Attendu qu’en l’occurence, Y acquiesçant à la demande de nullité fondée sur un mensonge relatif à sa virginité, il s’en déduit que cette qualité avait bien été perçue par elle comme une qualité essentielle déterminante du consentement de X au mariage projeté; que dans ces conditions, il convient de faire droit à la demande de nullité du mariage pour erreur sur les qualités essentielles du conjoint.

Par ces motifs, prononce l’annulation du mariage.

The vast majority of French politicians and intellectuals have severely criticized the judgment.

UPDATE: the French government has decided to lodge an appeal against the decision of the Lille court.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Anna Gardella June 3, 2008, 1:36 pm

    This is bad news for the country of Simone de Bauvoir and of many other French intellectuals who fought for women’s emancipation. The judgment raises a whole bunch of sensitive issues ranging from diversity integration; equality and pluralism and human rights. Isn’t it “ironic” that the “Westners” go around the world to implement self-empowerment programs for women and are unable to hold their own values at home?
    On what grounds did the court ascertain the wife’s consent to divorce? Any doubt about social “coercion”?

  • Gilles Cuniberti June 3, 2008, 2:10 pm

    Your feeling is certainly shared by the vast majority of French women.

    I am not aware of anybody raising the issue of coercion to the annullement, so my guess is that there was none. Indeed, the French Minister of Justice Rachida Dati (herself the daughter of North African emmigrants) argued that the proceedings were actually protective of the wife, as they were giving her a way out of that family in law. But she was quite isolated on the French scene, and was eventually forced to lodge an appeal against the judgment by President Sarkozy.

  • Giorgio Buono June 3, 2008, 7:22 pm

    The “blogDalloz” (a blog edited by the renowned French legal publisher) has a downloadable .pdf version of the judgment, and hosts two academic comments (in French), by Hugues Fulchiron (Director of the “Centre de droit de la famille” at the University of Lyon 3 “Jean Moulin”) and Aline Cheynet de Beaupré (Maître de conférences at the University of Orléans).
    Link: http://blog.dalloz.fr/blogdalloz/2008/06/le-mariage-et-l.html