French court examines Muslim marriage row

Amid furious protests from women's rights groups


A French court heard an appeal Monday into the case of a Muslim couple whose marriage was annulled on the grounds the bride was not a virgin, sparking a national uproar.

Public outrage at the ruling, handed down in April, forced the government to order the appeal against the wishes of both spouses.

Neither the woman nor her husband, a Muslim engineer in his 30s, was present for the hearing in the northern French town of Douai. Both were due to ask the court to release them from their marriage vows.

A spokesman for the prosecution said Monday it was not against granting an annulment, but would need to replace the "discriminatory motive" of virginity with a "legitimate" one.

The bride's lawyer, Charles-Edouard Mauger, said before the hearing his client was "very fragile" as a result of the scandal, and wanted to find a "way out of this marital bond that no longer has any meaning."

"We need to take the general interest into account, and not annul the union for questions of virginity, but we still need to find a motive to annul this marriage," he told reporters.

The man sought the annulment after realizing his bride was not a virgin on their wedding night in July 2006. His wife subsequently said she accepted the annulment, insisting she wanted to move on.

The ruling handed down in the northern French city of Lille did not mention the couple's religion but said the man's belief in the woman's virginity was a "determining factor" in his decision to marry her.

France's Muslim-born justice minister, Rachida Dati, though she finally ordered an appeal, had continued to insist the ruling was legally sound, based on a breach of trust between the pair, not the issue of virginity itself.

The case drew furious protests from women's rights groups while some 150 European parliament members wrote to Dati in June denouncing it as an unacceptable encroachment of religion in the public sphere.

France is home to Europe's largest Muslim community, estimated at five million people.

The ruling was expected at a later date.