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Big Love Soaking the State

Religiously inspired polygamy creates a financial burden on the state, something both the United States and France agree on.

Last month a Muslim woman in France, driving her car in a niqab, was pulled over and fined $30 for wearing clothes that blocked her vision. A niqab is a full veil with just an eye slit, and the traffic stop has become a comedy of unintended consequences, in part because it's not clear that driving in a veil transgresses any French law.

But the unnamed woman is married to Lies Habbadj, a halal butcher in Nantes who appears to be a polygamist in every sense but the French legal one. He lives in a house with his wife, surrounded by houses where four other women raise a total of 12 children, all his. The four women claim welfare as "single mothers." So the traffic stop, unintentionally, has exposed a real clash of cultural values that should (but won't) outweigh all the recent noise about veils.

Under French law, the four women are Habbadj's mistresses, though he married them under Islamic law. So when a pack of journalists came knocking in Nantes, he had an answer ready. "As far I know, mistresses are not banned by France or Islam," he said. "Maybe by Christianity, but not in France."

Muslim groups have protested that Islam does ban mistresses. But in response to a French minister who called for Habbadj's citizenship to be revoked, the Algerian-born butcher added, "If one is stripped of French nationality because one has mistresses, then many Frenchmen could be." Touché.

Habbadj appears to be running a common scam. France outlawed polygamy in 1993 because a rising number of immigrants, mainly from Muslim Africa, were bringing wives and extended families in for the sake of social services.

"They practice polygamy just for that," Jean-Marie Ballo, founder of a group to help women trapped in polygamous marriages, Nouveaux Pas (New Steps), told The Associated Press. "I'd go so far as to say that polygamists here in France are breeding for cash."

The remark might have an awkward racial overtone in France, but Ballo himself is the child of a polygamous family from Mali. And it turns out that the pattern of raising polygamous families on public assistance has more in common with "plural marriages" — as the Mormons call them — than with race.

Because the same story repeats itself in America, where quasi-Mormon groups win food stamps and child support because of all their legally fatherless children. "What happens is a man marries one wife, [and] she's his legal wife," said a woman named Laurie Allen, who escaped from a polygamous marriage, to CBS News during the Warren Jeffs affair in 2008. "Then he marries 10 other wives in the church, and all the other wives are, by law, single women, so they have all these children with him, and they all get welfare."

The difference between European-immigrant welfare cheats and their fundamentalist Mormon counterparts may be their specific attitude toward the state. Mark Shurtleff, Utah's attorney general, says that in the case of Mormon fundamentalists, "their religious belief is that they'll bleed the beast, meaning the government. They hate the government, so they'll bleed it for everything they can through welfare, tax evasion and fraud."

In either case, of course, respect for the wider culture is lacking, so there should be clear legal ways to dry up welfare payments to sprawling polygamous families. The idea touted in France right now is to revoke their citizenship, but Immigration Minister Eric Besson has admitted that "the facts of polygamy and welfare fraud" in Lies Habbadj's case, "if true and if they were the subject of a conviction," would still not threaten his passort.

Besson is open to a change in French citizenship law to allow Habbadj's deportation. But why not set (and enforce) clear rules on denying child support to obviously polygamous families? Experience in both America and Europe has shown that splitting the families up is traumatic; forcing more of the parents to work for a living would at least help integrate them into society at large. It would also be more salutary — and productive — than telling the women what to wear.