PARIS (Reuters) - A French Muslim threatened with being stripped of his passport for practicing polygamy on Monday denied the accusation, saying he had only one wife and several mistresses.
The case of Lies Hebbadj, an Algerian-born butcher who became a French citizen when he married a French woman in 1999, has flared into a major political row with opposition parties accusing the government of exploiting the situation.
Hebbadj’s story came to light on Friday, when his wife complained she had been fined for driving while wearing an Islamic veil on the grounds that it was dangerous.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux accused Hebbadj of having four wives, who between them were claiming single parent benefits for his 12 children.
The accusation came days after the government announced a plan to ban the full veil from the streets of France.
Hebbadj said only one was his wife and the others were lovers.
“If one can be stripped of one’s French nationality for having mistresses, then many French could lose theirs,” he told reporters in the Western city of Nantes, where he lives.
A person can lose their French passport if they acquired it through fraud -- if, for instance, Hebbadj hid an existing marriage when he married the French woman. Mistresses, however, are hardly unusual in France, where former President Francois Mitterrand maintained a hidden, second family for years.
Hebbadj’s lawyer Franck Boezec said he had not ruled out filing a defamation suit against Hortefeux.
While it is still unclear whether Hebbadj and his partners have broken the law, Immigration Minister Eric Besson suggested stricter legislation to punish polygamists.
“If the French consider that fraudulent polygamy and benefit claims shouldn’t be allowed, then ... we could well imagine a change to the law,” Besson told RTL radio on Monday.
Local authorities on Monday launched an official investigation into the polygamy and benefit fraud claims.
Still smarting from a beating in last month’s regional elections, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has revived a strident tone on law and order popular with many of his voters.
He has called for a public ban of veils such as the burqa or niqab, which he describes as demeaning to women, in a legal gamble given constitutional guarantees on freedom of religion.
The French Council of Muslims (CFCM), a body that opposes the full veil but does not believe a ban is helpful, met French Prime Minister Francois Fillon on Monday to complain that the debate over the burqa was damaging the image of Muslims.
“The prime minister assured us that the government would do everything to prevent any stigmatization and make sure that the law (on the veil) will not make any reference to the religious aspect of the question,” said the CFCM head, Mohammed Moussaoui.
According to a poll released on Monday seven out of 10 people are in favor of the law.
Over the weekend, unknown attackers shot at a mosque and a halal butcher in Istres and Marseille in southern France.
The CFCM lamented that the government had not commented at all on the two separate attacks, in contrast to the slew of statements on the Hebbadj family.
“This kind of unbalanced communication ... risks creating frustration and tension in the Muslim community,” Moussaoui told reporters after meeting Fillon.
Additional reporting by Guillaume Frouin, Clement Guillou and Yann Le Guernigou, Laure Bretton; Editing by Jon Hemming
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.