Sarkozy backs justice minister on 'fake-virgin' case

President Nicolas Sarkozy lent his support to Rachida Dati after she was booed by her fellow parliamentarians on Tuesday for her handling of the case of a marriage annulled because the bride lied about her virginity.


French Justice Minister Rachida Dati warned Tuesday that a marriage annulment granted because the bride was not a virgin should not be used to stigmatise France's five-million-strong Muslim population.

She made the comment in a stormy parliamentary session in which opposition Socialists booed her for several minutes as she argued the annulment should go before an appeal court but that the ruling was nevertheless legally sound.

"Let's avoid caricature... let's avoid the stigmatisation of certain of our compatriots," she said, referring to the country's Muslim population, the largest in Europe.

Critics across the political spectrum -- including other ministers in President Nicolas Sarkozy's government -- have slammed the annulment ruling as a victory for fundamentalists and a blow to the emancipation of women.

The annulment was granted in April by a court in the northern city of Lille but news of it reached the French media only last Thursday.

The husband, an engineer in his thirties who has not been named, requested it because he realised his new bride, also a Muslim, was not a virgin on their wedding night in July 2006.

The woman later admitted to him she had had pre-marital sex.

The court granted the request after ruling that the man's belief in the woman's virginity was a "determining factor" in his decision to marry her.

The ruling did not mention the couple's religion.

Dati emphasised that point in Tuesday's parliamentary session, noting that the annulment was accepted by both the man and the woman, a student nurse some 10 years younger than her former husband and like him of north African origin.

"Tomorrow, we will have other cases, and perhaps without the agreement of one of the two partners," Dati told parliament.

Therefore she said the case needed to be reexamined in an appeal court because "there must be no ambiguity in the application of the law," which must not "allow the procedure of annulment to be used on the sole grounds of non-virginity."

Dati, who herself comes from a Muslim family and had her own arranged marriage annulled, had on Friday supported the ruling, saying it was a "way to protect people."

But on Monday, after a weekend of heated media debate in this staunchly secular nation, she made a U-turn and ordered an appeal.

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

It does not state what the essential qualites are.

But marriages have been annulled for reasons such as impotence, if a partner does not reveal a previous marriage or a child, or if the wife hides the fact that she had been a prostitute.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said he would take the Lille case to France's high court of appeal if necessary to prevent creating a legal precedent for annulling a marriage on grounds of virginity.

Urban affairs secretary Fadela Amara, a practising Muslim and women's rights activist, has called the annulment "a fatwa against women's emancipation."

Women's group Femmes Solidaires said the ruling was all the more scandalous because there were "more and more young women who resort to surgery to reconstitute their hymens to be a virgin at their marriage."

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