Although there are no hard figures, reports in the last ten years estimate that there are between 8,000 to 20,000 polygamous families living in France, or between 150,000 and 200,000 individuals. Most are immigrants from Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal, with the majority being Malian, Muslim, and first-generation immigrants (Selby 2013). France contains the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. These families are primarily concentrated in enclaves in the poorer Paris suburbs, where today they make up the majority of some communities.
The history of these families in France begins with the country’s recruitment of immigrant labor from southern Europe and former French colonies between 1945 and 1975. In the 1960s, the government sponsored family reunification programs with the goal of assimilating immigrant families into French society. Until 1993, visas granted family sponsorship to polygamous families. While sickness and maternity benefits were accorded only to the first wife, other wives were able to obtain legal residence permits. In contrast, family allowances were and still are given to all children resident in France regardless of immigrant status or the nationality of their parents. This regulatory framework thus has encouraged childbearing among these families as a way to increase family income.
In the 1980s, anti-immigrant sentiment grew, and in 1993, the government responded to various pressures relating to immigration and to polygamy by passing new immigration legislation known as le loi Pasqua, named after then-Interior Minister Charles Pasqua. Among other changes, the new law substantially changed French policy regarding polygamy. After 1993, only one spouse of each family would be issued a spousal visa and working papers, and only one spouse would be eligible for a family allowance; all other spouses and their children were excluded. Moreover, this policy was applied retroactively to all polygamous families. The law mandated that men and all their wives would lose working and residence papers and family allowance, and be subject to deportation, unless they agreed to the process of décohabitation—legally divorced and physically separating the household so that each wife lives separately with her children.
The post-1993 regulations have often forced polygynously married women into undesirable living situations. In many instances, children and secondary wives share small apartments because a husband can legally claim socially assisted housing only for his first wife and children.
The regulation of polygyny in France involves a complex relationship of colonialism and the French model of integration and republican universalism, which requires equal legal treatment for all, without exception for religion, ethnicity, race, or gender. How does the regulation of polygamy in France enable the regulation of racial/ethnic and immigrant groups? How does France deal with balancing competing rights in regard to polygamy? These questions motivate my research in France.