Mixed Marriages. Some Key Questions1

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  • Mixed Marriages. Some Key Questions

    Augustin Barbara*

    By necessity or by choice people travel. They look for work, pursue studies outside their own countries, take part in seminars and go on holiday. Some are rekgees or exiled from their country. Some will eventually become established and even put down roots in foreign soil. All are exposed to the most varied influences. At present, there are more than 4 million foreigners in France (8 per cent of the population). Although this percentage has changed little since the war, the com- position of the foreign population has changed significantly, having been drawn more considerably from the Mediterranean basin than from the European continent.

    Contacts are established between a national majority population and foreign minorities at different levels (professional, territorial, family, civic) and according to their stages in life (Hamad, 1984).* These are the ingredients of what is now commonly called the French melting-pot and becomes concrete in the form of combined differential integration (Noiriel, 1988; Schor 1985). The legal aspect of this is decisive when it comes to harmonizing the letter of the law with social reality (Costa Lascoux, 1986; Rude-Antoine; Whitol de Weenden, 1988). As a form of affective insertion, the intercultural or mixed marriage will provide couples with even deeper roots when they have ~hildren.~ Does this kind of marriage between two strangers explain some of the wider complex- ities of the meeting of two groups?

    Examples that highlight conflictual aspects of such unions are frequently publicized, e.g., cases in 1978 of Dalila Maschino (the Unions between a Muslim women and a Frenchman) and Odile Pierquin (a Frenchwoman and a Chinese). More recently, M. Bellefroid, a French diplomat, was consideredpersona non grata by the Chinese authorities and his fiancke, Li-Shung, was sent to a re-education camp. She has since regained her freedom and is now married in Paris, where she has made her career as a painter.

    * Department of Sociology, University of Nantes, France.


  • In January 1988 there was the well-publicized Selim case. The adoles- cent son of a divorced mixed couple refused to return to his father in Algeria during a visit across the border. Mediation occurred at a time of strained relations between France and Algeria, highlighted by the con- centrated action of a number of mothers separated from their children after divorce. However, a bilateral treaty signed in June 1988 will bring into force certain legal clauses at the moment of d i~orce .~

    Until fairly recently, marriages between Protestants and Catholics were condemned in France. The situation in Ireland today also hinders union between the two important religious communities. Repercussions from the Islamic hdamentalist movement provoke an even greater condem- nation of these marriages, not only at national level but even within the family. Such is the case between the Copts and the Muslims in Egypt and in many nations vis-a-vis the gypsy population.

    The difficult situation for some of the children of divorced mixed couples highlights conflictual aspects of these marriages. Children who have been kidnapped from the parent who had been given legal custody live a dramatic life of separation. Mixed unions pose research questions relevant to those posed by racialism and international migrations, an issue that a UNESCO Congress in Athens in 1981 deemed important enough to warrant further research. Mixed marriages demonstrate the structures of kinship that societies have set up to regulate sexual relations and, at the same time, their biological reproduction in harmony with their overall interests (Levi-Strauss, 1949).

    A marriage involving partners from different groups can provide the framework for research into contacts between different cultures. It offers an interesting insight into phenomena created by immigration and can provide insights into these contacts and different forms of the rejection of cross-breeding (Taguieff, 1988; Nouvelle Revue d Ethno- psychiutrie, 199 1). Hostility towards different groups stems from what one mostly desires to find in ones offspring (Lemaine and Matalon, 1985: 47). The intercultural marriage also provides opportunity to study elements of the dynamics of a couples relationship in the modal marriage.5

    Ofthe 2,749,562 marriages in France between 1968 and 1974,130,550 (or 4.75 per cent) were mixed. Between 1975 and 1981, the percentage increased to 5.80 (2,473,400 and 143,321 respectively). At present, the rate of bi-national marriages exceeds 10 per cent. In fact, if unions follow certain laws of encounter between two individuals, they also follow the laws of encounter between populations, particularly within the context


  • of international migrations. At certain points in history there is a geo- graphical approximation between a part of the female proportion of the age pyramid in France and a part of the unmarried male proportion of the Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Maghrebian immigrants6 (Barbara, 1979). These marriages are also more frequent in industrial centres where large numbers of foreign populations, especially labourers, live. This phenomenon can also be observed amongst student marriages in large university cities.

    Specifically speaking, the proportion of French-Maghrebian marriages is continuously growing within the French population. The following figures show increasing numbers of marriages between Maghrebian males and French females, and also between Maghrebian females and French males:

    1975 1984 1989

    Men from MaghrebRrenchwomen 2,562 3,381 6,056 Women from MaghrebRrenchmen 725 1,605 3,062

    Source: M. Tribalat, F. Munoz-Perez: Les mariages dimmigrts avec des Francais. leur tvolution depuis quelques anntes, Institut national des &des dtmographiqies @NED), No. 7, 1991.

    Congr& et Colloques,

    While the marriage of Muslims outside their group poses a number of questions, the above statistics do not specifL whether the marriages were between persons of the same religion who had become French by naturalization, particularly the children of immigrants. However, the figures do show a tendency - empirically observed - for the marriage of this set of Muslim girls7 to be characterized by an element of generation conflict which, according to M. Catani, on the occasion of marriage, finds expression in contradiction between the parents values (anxious about the honour and continuity of the lineage) and those of the children which are focused on the individual (Catani, 1983; Sayad, 1979).

    Together with a number of other factors, this is one aspect of the process of Muslim immigration taking root in France as well as one of the components of the religious and social system, both of French and European politics (Levau, 1986: 601; Kepel, 1987). But to explore fUrther its broader implications would require carefbl definition of the new lay interculture that is actually open towards the Islam (Citron, 1988: 22), a current issue in all European countries (Bastenier and Dassetto, 1984).



    The rate of bi-national (mixed) marriages has increased in both France and the United States during the last three decades (Alba, 1976). According to a sample study of American Catholics, it is gradually leading to an erosion of ethnic frontiers (Alba and Kessler, 1979). Religious identity still exists in these unions, women apparently finding it easier to convert to their husbands religion, particularly in the case of JewisWChristian marriages (Lazerwitz, 197 1). Indeed, there is a strong religious exogamy amongst Protestants, Catholics and Jewish people (Peach, 1980). The question of mixed marriages also arises amongst more recent minorities in the United States. Amongst Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, a greater number of women than men marry outside their group (Kitano et al., 1984). For Japanese in Washington State, mixed marriages increased from one per cent before the war to 50 per cent in 1975 (Murstein, 1986). Attitudes in the United States towards mixed marriages between white and black persons are changing. To the ques- tion, Do you approve or disapprove of marriage between Blacks and Whites?, 43 per cent of respondents to a Gallup poll in 1983 expressed approval, compared with 20 per cent to a poll in 1958. Studies in Canada also confirm the importance of these unions (Barbara, 199 1).

    Mixed marriages were a major preoccupation of demographic politics in some republics of the (former) USSR (Carrere dEncausse, 1978) and of socialist countries such as Czechoslovakia which had received many immigrants (Ukrainians, Greeks, Germans, etc.) after 1945. Endogamy tends to disappear in the second generation (Heroldova, 1983) although, in Albania, Islam still seems to act as a constraint on mixed marriages (Tirtga, 1979). In Hungary, inter-confessional mixed marriages declined between the wars but restrictions, which were especially strong in urban areas, are now less severe (Karady, 1985). The mixed populations of Latin America were often the outcome of forced relations between majority and minority populations (Bastide, 1967). In Germany, mixed marriages have become an object of tension, especially following the warning from the Bishop of Munster, Mgr. Reinhard Lettmann, in November 1986. More than 1,800,000 Muslims, the majority of Turkish origin, live in Germany and, the Prelate declared: As ... most of them will stay, one can no longer speak of isolated cases, and mixed marriages are increasingly frequent ... Mentalities, customs and habits are too different, between the two religions ... The difficult integration of Germans in large Muslim families, the pressure of society from the fathers country of origin, are amongst the distinct cultural traits (Liberution, 5 November 1986). His concerns partly echoed those of the French Episcopate which met in Lourdes at about the same time (November 1986) and was designed, at least in Germany, to put hture

    5 74

  • spouses on their guard or even discourage them from mixed marriage. Indeed, Mgr. Lettmann asked his Priests to have some serious talks with those who intend to enter into marriage with a Muslim. Mixed marriages in Germany also exist with other nationalities: 7.3 per cent of the total 364,140 marriages in 1984. During the same year, the number of births from these unions represented 4.83 per cent of total births.8

    The considerable increase in numbers of unions between Swiss persons and foreigners does not apply to partners from neighbouring countries Germany, Austria and Italy, although the French still seem to be in demand. However, there has been an increasing frequency of marriages with foreigners fUrther removed from European culture, e.g., Mauritius, Ile de la Rkunion and Thailand. Marriage agencies tend to exploit this migration vein by promoting the exotic attractions with the aim of marriage.


    There is ahigh percentage of mixed marriages amongst the working class in big cities, especially where foreign populations are large. Geo- graphical proximity is matched by social proximity, such as in the case of two students who meet in the same place. Some foreigners put them- selves on the general marriage market, which in itself is socially layered; indeed, one marriage in two occurs between partners with the same social ba~kground.~ This is the case amongst foreign workers from Mediter- ranean countries who are generally at the bottom of the economic ladder and, in most cases, will marry a French partner at the same bottom rung.

    Observing successive waves of immigration to France - Polish, Belgian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Maghrebian, Yugoslav and Turkish - it is clear that during the initial phase males generally marry French women. In a subsequent phase, family immigration contributes to the formation of situations specific to each nationality, and, depending on its size, increases the possibility of marriage between men and women of the same nationality. The position of the foreigners on the national marriage market will therefore depend on their own social and professional position as well as on their rank within the hierarchy of sympathies and antipathies of French people towards persons of their nationality at that particular time (Girard, 1974). Depending on the period in history, or economic conditions at the time, certain foreign nationalities appear more or less congenial in France. For example, since the end of the Second World War, marriages with Germans have not been generally favoured by the French people, reflecting the historically difficult relations. The same attitude relates to French-Algerian marriages which were rare before and during the Algerian war.



    A more exact analysis of distance between spouses requires M e r examination of the concept mixture. lo This would include not only its cultural character (difference in nationality, religion, culture, skin colour, etc.) but also its social character (difference in background). Moreover, this mixture can be socially imposed upon individuals by certain social groups or professional and social categories that vary according to population composition. In fact, they provide information concerning the social rise or fall of certain groups (artisans, farmers, small shopkeepers), staggered and differentiated according to sex. Merton (1 94 1) identified several logical combinations that come into force in marriage. This author had established criteria on the basis of the situation in America by studying marriage between blacks and whites (Vinsonneau, 1978; Philippe, 1983). Since then, intercultural relations have changed and migrations have increased. Mixed couples, together with other phenom- ena (refugees, foreigners in the process of naturalization) constitute the special cases that end up representing a fair percentage that links the foreign population to the national popu1ation.I Some of these unions combine cultural cfiteria (nationality, religion, colour, language) and social class. Endogamy of culture and class bring together individuals that are alike on all points. On the other hand, marriage can unite individuals of the same culture but with different social backgrounds which will mean that two classes overlap, e.g., a French University teacher marrying a French office clerk or worker. In such a marriage, the husband will accede to a higher social status (social hypergamy); although the situation could also be the inverse (social hypogamy). Both cases are hetero-social marriages (De Singly, 1977).

    Combinations also occur with respect to culture, colour and religion (Collet, 1986), but within an analogous social setting, sometimes to the advantage of the man when his culture is considered higher in the cultural hierarchy (cultural hypergamy). Thus, simultaneously or separ- ately, and quite often alternating, the so...