The five-year-old does his Spiderman act in the middle of the living room. His 11-year-old sister jabs the remote control at the stereo below the photograph of Mecca, and Rohff begins to rap. Their 20-year-old brother rolls his eyes, gets up and clears off.
“See how my kids don’t listen to me,” grumbles Madiheri Diawara, 75, a retired builder who migrated to France from Mali 34 years ago.
Mr Diawara and his two wives have raised 13 children in a three-bedroom flat in a tower block in Paris’s north-western outskirts. All but four have left home, yet immigration bureaucrats are pressing Mr Diawara to disown half his family.
The local police prefecture refuses to renew his resident’s card until he divorces one of his wives, or sends one back to Mali. He is supposed to choose between Mantia, 72, who has diabetes, and Djeneba, 46, with whom he has three school-age children.
“After all this time, why should I get a divorce just for a visa,” asked Mr Diawara, a former soldier in the French Army who has twice made the pilgrimage to Mecca. “How could I justify it to God?”
Even though polygamy is an offence that carries a prison sentence in France, the Interior Ministry estimates there are about 20,000 polygamous families, mainly from Mali, Senegal and Algeria, where tribal and Muslim customs encourage men to take up to four wives.
The situation stems from a ruling in 1980 that encouraged family reunions for polygamous migrant workers. After an immigration backlash in 1993, the French parliament passed a law restricting family reunions to one wife. Later, directives decreed that those who had lived in France for more than 15 years, or whose children were born in the country, could not be expelled.
Since 2000, the renewal of residents’ cards has been tied to the break-up of families. Many women are in a no-win situation: they cannot be expelled because their children are French, and they cannot be regularised, which means they cannot work and are dependent on their husbands and social benefits.
“It’s a catastrophe,” said Jacques Kossowki, a conservative mayor and MP. “We don’t have housing big enough for these people. We have to accept polygamy exists in other countries, but it is not recognised by French law so I don’t see why we should accept it.”
One town council has announced a strategy designed to tempt women to leave their husbands, with offers of improved housing, job training and financial support.
Les Mureaux, a dormitory town 40 kilometres west of Paris, has identified 80 polygamous families, with about 1000 children, in its public housing estates.
“The laws are contradictory, but these people are here, so what is society going to do about it?” the deputy mayor, Marie-Francoise Savigny, asked.
“We need a national debate. We are against polygamy, but we have to treat it in a humane way.”
African community leaders defend polygamy in their homelands, but accept it is ill-suited to urban Europe. “Polygamy will disappear eventually,” said Abdoulaye Doumbia, 74, the monogamous president of an expatriate support group. “The Government should tolerate and regularise those who are already here, that’s all we ask.”
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