When police stopped a woman driving with a full face-covering Islamic veil, little did they know what they would uncover. It turned out that her husband, a halal butcher, practised polygamy, which is illegal in France—or, rather, he was living with four women, one of whom he was married to. Brice Hortefeux, the interior minister, wildly overreacted, demanding that he be stripped of his French nationality. The affair has exposed both the reality of polygamy and the difficulty of doing anything about it.

France considers polygamy "a grave infringement of the principle of equality between men and women". The practice was forbidden in 1993, when immigration laws were tightened to stop husbands bringing extra wives into the country. Yet there are an estimated 200,000 people, including children, living in 16,000-20,000 polygamous families in France. Most are of African origin, particularly from Muslim parts of the Maghreb and Sahel, where polygamy is accepted.

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