Out of France: Expulsions take convenience out of marriage

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PARIS - When Martine Madouni stopped to watch police check an Arab's identity in the Paris Metro, it was she who ended up in a police cell and then in court.

Noting her interest in their work, the police asked Mrs Madouni for her documents. According to Mrs Madouni's account, Brigitte Bonvalot, a police officer, saw her surname and made racist remarks about her marriage to a Moroccan.

The incident occurred in December 1992 at the Nation Metro station. The police tried to frisk Mrs Madouni and she kicked a male officer in the shin.

The Paris appeals court found in favour of Mrs Madouni a few weeks ago and, according to lawyers, introduced 'legitimate rebellion' into jurisprudence.

The court finding, after Mrs Madouni had been fined by a lower court last April, blamed the police for not respecting regulations stipulating that they can only check the identity of people who have committed - or seem likely to commit - an offence.

Although the case occurred before France's conservative government introduced tougher immigration and nationality laws last August, the court's finding was typical of a new vigilance towards police abuse amid complaints that French police regularly exceed their brief when immigrants are involved.

A particular area of concern for civil-rights groups is a spate of marriages that cannot take place because police expel the foreign partner before the ceremony. The new immigration laws loosened controls on identity checks and tightened the laws on residence and marriage.

According to Simon Foreman, a Paris lawyer, between three and four cases a week of foreign, often North African, would-be spouses being deported had been reported since September. They were part of a campaign to clamp down on marriages of convenience contracted to gain French nationality or residence.

Before the Gaullist and centre- right coalition came to power in parliamentary elections last March, mayors - the registrars for France's obligatory civil marriage ceremony - complained of obvious abuses.

One mayor said he had married a North African in his twenties to a Frenchwoman of 70.

Mayors were told in August to pass on all information about foreigners' marriages to the police. The police then call in the couple to inspect the foreign partner's documents and assess the sincerity of the union.

Mr Foreman said the police then had 10 days to act. The case goes before a magistrate and, if he accepts police objections, the foreigner can be deported.

One of Mr Foreman's cases, dating back to before the introduction of the new laws, involved Fabienne Bricet, a 24-year-old Frenchwoman and Ahmed Khelifa, a 25-year-old Algerian. They went for their police interview on 14 June.

He was held because his residence permit had run out and was expelled on 20 June. The next month Miss Bricet tried to marry him at the French consulate in Oran but the consul said he could only marry French nationals.

Since her case received publicity, Miss Bricet said it was resolved after the Foreign Ministry intervened. But solving such matters 'now works by directives from the Foreign Ministry', she said, complaining that the regular appeals process was cumbersome.

Another series of cases involves allegations that the authorities are using new laws retroactively - against couples who married before last August and who should come under the old legislation.

Previously, marriage to a French citizen guaranteed the right of residence for a foreigner from the first day. Under the new law, the foreign partner only gains such protection after 12 months.

A watchdog body, the National Council of Secular Family Associations, has noted 200 such cases.

Liliane Cordova, a council member, married a Peruvian in October 1992. Mr Cordova then applied for new residence documents. Last September, however, he heard that since his French visa had expired 17 days before the wedding, he could not have a residence card. In January, he was told to leave Paris and apply for a new visa in Peru, a process which Mrs Cordova said could take six months.

But to enforce the police instruction would require a magistrate's approval 'and no judge will do this', Mrs Cordova said, saying that her husband remained in France although he risked a fine every time his documents were checked.