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Europe Friday, 30 March, 2001, 17:12 GMT 18:12 UK
Equality: Polygamy in Paris
Have we really achieved equality between the sexes?
The French government wants to outlaw polygamy to protect the estimated 140,000 people living in polygamous families - but it is tearing apart established families in the process. Edward Stourton reports.

There are an estimated 140,000 people living in France in polygamous families. That extraordinary statistic is a consequence of French immigration and employment policies in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It was a period of industrial unrest in the French public sector, and the government encouraged men from Mali, Senegal, Cameroon and Togo to come and clean the streets and empty the dustbins. Many of them came from polygamous cultures, and they brought their families with them.


We accept the French for how they are, I would like them to accept the way we live.

Gundu Sogouna
For years polygamy was tolerated as an necessary oddity, but in 1993, the right wing French politician Charles Pasqua pushed through a law outlawing the institution.

Initially no one paid it too much attention, but the French authorities are now cracking down hard on what they regard as an affront to women's rights.

Under the legislation polygamous families must split up or lose their livelihoods - men who refuse to "de-cohabit" lose their work permits.

Catastrophic consequences

France: a clash of cultures
It means uncertainty and financial hardship for almost all the families involved. Sometimes the consequences for one half of the family can be catastrophic. Gundu Sogouna and her eight children ended up living in a squat in an abandoned building in the suburbs.

"I never thought I would end up living in these conditions," she said. "We accept the French for how they are, I would like them to accept the way we live."

Even more fundamentally, it means the break-up of families who have been living happily according their own cultural beliefs.

I asked one polygamous husband and father, Toumani Dairra, whether he would be willing to divorce. "Never, even if they had a knife and cut off my head - never!"

This began as a story about the right to equality - it became one about a conflict between two sets of rights; the rights of women, and those of minorities.

See also Edward Stourton's report on:

Family Affairs:
1920 GMT, Sunday 1st April on BBC 2.

Reporter: Edward Stourton
Producer: Adrian Pennink
Executive Producer: Farah Durrani
Series Producer: Kate Snell

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Edward Stourton:
How close are we to achieving real equality between the sexes?
See also:

29 Feb 00 | Africa
07 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
25 Feb 99 | Middle East
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