Only some 50 marriages are performed each year for every 10,000 citizens – the lowest per capita number in Europe. As in many other Western countries, the average age for marriage is increasing and is almost 30 for men and 28 for women, who on average give birth for the first time at just under 30. Almost 7.5m French citizens live without a partner, around 1m of whom are divorcees, and the number is growing each year.
The number of unmarried couples in France has quadrupled to around 2m in the last two decades (among Europeans only the Swedes are less keen on marriage). It’s estimated that 40 to 50 per cent of couples who get married have already cohabited for up to two years. Many couples don’t bother to get married and simply live together, but French law distinguishes between partners living together ‘unofficially’ ( en union libre) and ‘officially’ ( en concubinage).
Those living together en concubinage have some of the same privileges in law as married couples, including social security. To qualify for these, you may need to obtain a (free) certificate from your town hall testifying that you’re living together ‘as man and wife’ (take identification, proof of address and two witnesses), although town halls aren’t obliged to issue them, in which case you can both sign a ‘sworn declaration’ ( attestation sur l’honneur) that you live together. The major disadvantage of concubinage is that it isn’t recognised under French inheritance laws, so partners can inherit only the amount allowed to non-relatives and they receive no state pension when their partner dies.
A pacte civile de solidarité, which is signed at a court, confers some but not all of the legal benefits of marriage. In certain parts of Paris, it’s possible for couples to have an unofficial ‘marriage’ ceremony, although gay marriages aren’t legal in France (a recent ‘union’ in Bordeaux was declared unlawful).
It’s reckoned that over 40 per cent of French children are born out of wedlock and a fifth are raised by a single parent (85 per cent women). Illegitimacy no longer carries the stigma it once did, and all children have the same rights; an unmarried mother ( mère célibataire) is even paid a generous allowance by the state.
Procedure for marriage in France
To arrange a marriage in France, either partner must apply at least a month in advance to the town hall where they normally live (they must have lived there for at least 40 days – 30 days’ residence plus ten days for publication of the banns). The bride and groom must each provide at least one witness and may provide two, whose names must be given to the town hall when the wedding is arranged. Both partners must also provide passports, residence permits (if applicable), birth certificates (stamped by their country’s local consulate not more than six months previously), proof of residence in France, and a medical certificate issued within the previous two months (see below). A divorced or widowed person must provide a divorce or death certificate.
You may also be required to produce a certificat de célibat (which doesn’t mean that you promise to be celibate but that you aren’t already married!) no more than three months old, provided by your embassy and a notarised ‘affidavit of law’ ( certificat de coutume), drawn up by a lawyer in your home country, to confirm that you’re free to marry. For a church ceremony, you may be asked to produce other documents, such as a baptism certificate. All documents must be ‘legalised’ in your home country and translated into French by an approved translator.
No more than two months before marrying, a couple must undergo a medical examination ( certificat d’examen médical prénuptial), including a blood test and chest X-ray. The cost is reimbursed by social security. The medical was originally intended to check compatibility between the blood groups of a couple, although with the advent of AIDS it has taken on a new significance. The results are confidential and cannot prevent a wedding from taking place. If a divorced or widowed woman wishes to remarry within 300 days of the divorce or death, she must provide a medical certificate verifying that she isn’t pregnant. For a church wedding, you may be required to attend a day’s préparation de mariage course.
You will then be issued with a pre-marital certificate. Notification of an impending wedding ( bans) must be published ten days before the ceremony at the town hall where the wedding is to take place.
A civil ceremony, presided over by the mayor or one of his deputies, must be performed in France to legalise a wedding. Although around 50 per cent of couples choose to undergo a church ‘blessing’ ceremony, it has no legal significance and must take place after the civil ceremony. There’s no fee for a marriage in France, although most town halls make a collection in aid of local charities.
Copies of the marriage certificate can be obtained at the mairie. Married couples are given a ‘family book’ ( livret de famille) in which all official family events such as the birth of children, divorce or deaths are recorded.
Further information about getting married in France (and other countries) can be found on the website of the Confetti Network (www.confetti.co.uk), which publishes Getting Married Abroad: A Practical Guide to Overseas Weddings.
Matrimonial Regimes in France
Marriages are performed under a marital regime ( régime matrimonial) that defines how a couple’s property is owned during marriage or after divorce or death. If you’re married in France, the rules of the marriage régime apply to all your land or land rights in France, irrespective of where you’re domiciled, and your total assets if you’re domiciled in France.
There are four matrimonial ‘regimes’ ( régime matrimonial): two communal regimes ( régime communautaire) and two ‘separatist’ regimes ( régime séparatiste). Under a communauté universelle, all assets and all debts are jointly owned; under a communauté réduite aux acquêts, each spouse retains ownership of assets acquired before marriage (and assets acquired after marriage in the form of inheritances and gifts), while all assets acquired jointly after marriage are jointly owned. Under a séparation de biens, nothing is jointly owned; and under a participation aux acquêts, nothing is jointly owned but if the marriage is dissolved, assets acquired during the marriage are divided equally.
A marriage contract isn’t obligatory but is strongly recommended. A notaire will charge at least €300 to draw one up. If you’re married in France and you don’t specify otherwise, you will normally be subject to a communal regime. If you choose a separatist regime, it’s usual to detail in a notarised contract how your assets are to be disposed of. If you were married abroad and are buying a house in France, your notaire will ask you which matrimonial regime you were married under and whether there was a marriage contract.
If there was no contract, you will usually be deemed to be married under a communal regime. You can change your marital regime, but not within two years of drawing up a marriage contract. However, changing your marital regime is expensive (up to €3,000) so it’s best to make sure you set up the regime you want when you get married. If you’re unsure about the implications of French marital regimes, you should seek advice from a notaire.
Divorce in France
As in most other Western countries, the divorce rate has risen alarmingly (by around 40 per cent) in the last decade in France, where more than a third of marriages end in divorce (there was even a best-selling Divorce magazine!), although it’s still lower than in some other European countries, e.g. the UK. You can be divorced under French law only when either spouse is a French citizen or when two non-French spouses are resident in France.
To be divorced ‘by mutual consent’ ( divorce par consentement mutuel or divorce sur demande conjointe), you must have been married for at least six months. Other types of divorce are ‘consent to divorce but not to consequences’ ( divorce sur demande acceptée), divorce based on fault ( divorce pour faute) such as adultery, and divorce based on termination of married life ( divorce pour rupture de la vie commune).
The grounds for a divorce needn’t be disclosed, provided both parties agree on the repercussions such as the division of property, custody of children, alimony and maintenance. A divorce is usually granted automatically by a judge, although he may order a delay of three months for reflection. A divorce becomes final one month after judgement or two months if it has gone to appeal. A contested divorce must be decided by a court of law.
Cohabiting partners (even those of the same sex) may sign a pacte civile de solidarité ( PACS), which protects the individual rights of each party and entitles partners to share property rights and enjoy income tax benefits. To make a PACS, you must go to the local tribunal d’instance (listed in the phone book) and submit a written statement that you wish to draw up a PACS under law no.99-944 of 15th November 1999, including details of the division of possessions between you. There’s no standard form for this.
You must also provide identification, birth certificates, a certificate from the relevant tribunal d’instance confirming your place of birth, and ‘sworn statements’ ( attestation sur l’honneur) that you live in the area and that there are no legal impediments to your making a PACS (e.g. one of you being married). Inheritance rights are the same as for married couples.
This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.