A French Muslim butcher at the centre of a firestorm over polygamy was charged on Wednesday with welfare fraud and his four companions will also face charges, a prosecutor said.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux had threatened to strip the Algerian-born man of his French passport after accusing him of polygamy, which is illegal in France.
Following a nearly two-month investigation, Hebbadj has been charged with welfare fraud and violating labour laws, Nantes prosecutor Xavier Ronsin told a news conference.
The 35-year-old was placed under judicial control, forced to hand in his passport and pay a 10,000 euro (12,000 dollar) bail before leaving the court house in a police van, hidden from journalists.
His four companions including his wife will be summoned to appear before a magistrate soon to also be formally charged with welfare fraud, said the prosecutor.
The charges stem from a number of alleged violations showing that Hebbadj cashed in on welfare benefits to which he was not entitled, the prosecutor said.
Two of his companions lived in Dubai for a year while continuing to receive welfare benefits worth 10,000 euros in France.
Hebbadj fathered 15 children and soon will have 17 with the women who received benefits over the past three years totaling 175,000 euros.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux responded quickly to Wednesday’s preliminary charges, insisting that “the definition of polygamy in the penal code is not adapted to today’s reality.”
In a statement, Hortefeux insisted that in reality Hebbadj was living in a polygamous state, even if he wasn’t legally married to all four women.
He called for France’s polygamy laws to be revamped and called for Hebbadj, who is a naturalized French citizen, to be stripped of his nationality.
“When a foreigner acquires French nationality due to his marriage to a French woman and then later lives in polygamy and abuses of the system of social aid, is it normal he keeps his nationality? My response is no!” the statement said.
The conservative government’s recent efforts to ban the head-to-toe Muslim veil has made it a hot-button issue in France. A draft law that is expected to be passed later this year would forbid such attire in all public places in France.
Under French law, preliminary charges mean the investigating judge has determined there is strong evidence to suggest involvement in a crime. It gives the investigator time to pursue the inquiry before deciding whether to send the suspect to trial or drop the case.