Arnaud the Superhero: Our Civil Marriage in France

Arriving at the town hall and meeting the mayor on the morning of our French civil wedding. July 24, 2018, Sarge-les-Mans, France.

Arriving at the town hall and meeting the mayor on the morning of our French civil wedding. July 24, 2018, Sarge-les-Mans, France.

Despite what you may believe from seeing plenty of people elope to Paris, people who don’t have at least French residency cannot get married in France. Typically, nonresidents get legally married via a hometown civil servant (i.e., a Justice of the Peace in the United States) and then do the ceremonial shindig in France.

In fact, as in most countries with true separation of church and state, churches in France can’t marry you in the eyes of the government. So even French people do both: They do all the government-required marriage paperwork in the town hall where they live, making them married in the eyes of the state, and then they do the big party in churches and reception halls, making them married in the eyes of the church. (I make the church default for the party part because, in Europe, most ceremonial weddings still take part in churches—not in event venues.)

The French make getting married into quite a serious affair requiring extensive paperwork and multiple procedural steps. France has made all these steps incredibly difficult—well-nigh impossible—to take if you can’t do all of them in person in France. Given that you need to have French residency to marry in France, this shouldn’t usually pose much of a hurdle.

At the time, Arnaud and I lived in the United States. And poor Arnaud had a fiancée (moi) who said that if the wedding ceremony would take place in France, she wanted to have the legal marriage in France. Otherwise, getting married in France just felt like a silly charade and we might as well get it all done in the United States before we moved to Switzerland.

And I didn’t want to get married in the United States. I wanted to get married in France.

Arnaud Accepts the Challenge

Arnaud is a native Frenchman and has French citizenship, but he hasn’t lived in France for a while. (Recap: Arnaud and I met in Houston, where he had worked for a university for the past several years.)

Given that you need French residency of at least six months over the past two years to qualify for getting married in France—and that the mayor of the town in which you live needs to approve and then carry out the marriage personally (and the approval lies solely in the mayor’s discretion)—Arnaud had a challenge ahead.

As it happens, one of your parents can make a personal, in-person request of his or her town’s mayor to approve and perform the marriage of his or her child. (If you don’t still have parents, this workaround won’t work.) Madame Delabasle, Arnaud’s mother, agreed to meet with her mayor when he returned from vacation to see what he would do. Arnaud’s aunt, Madame Chevallier, said she would try to petition her mayor for acceptance as well. And Arnaud’s cousin, who is the mayor in yet a different town, said he would consider marrying us—and then he decided to pass, given that marrying us without all the perquisites would appear to his town that he had done a family favor and hadn’t made a legitimate, disinterested, neutral mayoral decision.

Arnaud’s mother’s mayor seemed open to the idea. At least, he agreed to speak with Arnaud and me about the possibility. Part of the civil marriage process involves the engaged couple meeting with the mayor—and the meeting needs to take place in person. We sweated this detail; we couldn’t make a trip to France in time, given the wedding date.

Fortunately, the adventurous mayor kindly agreed to meet us via Skype. (Thank you, sir.)

With a mayor open to new things yet not quite experienced in the technology of the new things, we spent the first part of the call looking at the ceiling of his office before someone on his staff figured out how to redirect his camera.

Ahead of the call, I’d practiced as many French phrases as I could, none of which saved me from panicking that my nearly complete lack of French would disqualify me from marrying a Frenchman in the eyes of the very French mayor.

Arnaud did most of the talking, poured on the charm, and the mayor agreed to take the next procedural step.

The Certificate of Celibacy

From the mayor’s office, we received a multipage checklist of documents and materials we needed to source from far and wide and then provide in the proper formats and order (with any documents that didn’t originate in French translated into French by an approved translator). In the list of required paperwork, a request for our birth certificates seemed completely reasonable.

However, a birth certificate in France and a birth certificate in the United States have key differences.

A French birth certificate lives along with you, getting officially annotated by government agencies at big life changes, such as marriage, divorce, and the advent of children. If you don’t have a French birth certificate—comme moi—you must prove to the French government that you aren’t currently married to get married in France.

In French, the term for a single person is “célibataire.” Translated literally into English, it means “celibate.” (An entirely different yet amusing topic: The French language disingenuously pretends that unmarried people stay celibate.) When the French government asks you to prove your celibacy, it means it needs you to prove that you don’t have another spouse hanging around out there somewhere—though it doesn’t sound this way to a native English speaker.

Fortunately, proving my celibacy turned out to involve completing a straightforward form and having it notarized. Easy enough, though taking said form—headlined, in bold, “Certificate of Celibacy”—to the notary at my neighborhood Bank of America made for a memorable experience. The poor man smartly decided not to ask more than the questions needed for him to stamp and sign it—though he raised his eyebrows quite a bit.

Does Your Witness Speak French?

The requested paperwork included dossiers on our witnesses, including multiple proofs of their identity, residences, and employment. Further, in a minor detail for most French people that felt anything but minor to us: The government requires that the witnesses speak and understand French.

I get the rationale: The paperwork and the attestations required by the government for a marriage to take place all come in French. How could someone legitimately witness something, agree to it, and sign paperwork about it without understanding the language? (In fact, you could ask this of me as well, given that I would undergo a legal, governmental process entirely in French, at the end of which I’d end up officially linked to someone via promises I may not have fully understood.)

I wanted my brother to serve as my witness. Arnaud’s cousin, a Frenchman, served as his witness and didn’t have a problem on the language count. Sure, I could have had someone in Arnaud’s family serve as my witness as well, yet I wanted my brother to do it. (Arnaud has wonderful family members, but none of them are my brother.)

Given the time frame, coaching my brother to say “oui” and “non” in the right places and giving him facial cues for yes–no responses to questions we hadn’t anticipated in advance was the best Arnaud and I could do to fudge the French-speaking-witness requirement. We fervently hoped the mayor wouldn’t try to engage him in conversation.

After all, given that we needed to provide multiple layers of paperwork to have my brother approved as a witness in the first place, we couldn’t swap him out with a French speaker on game day and still get civilly married.

If my brother’s lack of French tripped us up, all of Arnaud’s work would be for naught.

You Want me to Attest to What?

To counter any concern that I’d agree to things during the civil-ceremony attestations that I didn’t understand, Arnaud procured a copy of the marriage documents for us to review in advance.

Turns out, the French “Articles des Codes Civil sur les Droits et les Devoirs Respectifs des Epoux” (in other words, the French Civil Code for the Rights and the Responsibilities of Spouses) states the following (in my not-official-translator, approximate English translation):

  • Article 212: The spouses agree to hold each other in mutual respect, to be faithful to each other, and to provide each other support and assistance.

  • Article 213: The spouses agree that they have joint responsibility for the moral and material direction of the family and that they will financially support the education and future of their children.

  • Article 214: If the spouses do not have other agreements by which they will contribute to the family’s needs, the spouses agree to contribute to the household in proportion to their respective abilities.

  • Article 215: The spouses will equally agree on the nature of their lifestyle and the rules of their relationship.

  • Article 220: Spouses can individually contract services and expenses related to the household and to supporting the education of their children. Any such debt contracted by one spouse obligates the other. However, if the spouse enters into an agreement for obviously excessive and unreasonable expenses, given the lifestyle of the household, the spouses are not jointly obligated for the debts. In addition, the spouses do not have joint responsibility for debts one spouse contracts without the other spouse’s signature that relate to installment purchases and loans—unless these installment purchases and loans are for modest amounts and the family’s daily life requires the contracted items.

  • Article 371-1: Parental authority is a set of rights and duties whose purpose is the best interests of the child. It belongs to the father and mother until the majority or the emancipation of the child. Parental authority should serve the child’s safety, security, health, and morality; educate him; and allow for his development with the respect due to his person. Parents agree to consult children with decisions that concern them according to the age and the degree of their maturity.

At first, having official governmental codes for these agreements (with numbered articles, even!) amused me. I had no problem with any of it, yet these didn’t feel like normal government requirements prior to granting marriage, exactly.

Yet after a bit of thought, these terms seem like pretty smart statements on which people should think and agree before they legally tie their lives. Just asking them “to have and to hold” and to hang onto each other “until death do you part” seems a little vague, upon reflection.

Of course, I’ve never read through U.S. civil marriage attestations. For all I know, the United States asks Americans to make the same statements and commitments. (Though you can color me surprised if they do.)

Arnaud Manages a Miracle

Though we submitted all our paperwork in all the proper formats and all of it seemed to pass muster, we had no idea if we would get married in France by this French mayor on the planned date and time until we showed up and it looked like the mayor had everything prepared. He even had his tricolor sash on, which made everything feel very fancy and very French.

Yet even then, we didn’t know if my brother’s lack of the French language would trip us up.

The mayor’s gift of a book on his small town in France and our French Book of the Family.

The mayor’s gift of a book on his small town in France and our French Book of the Family.

Fortunately, the mayor shook my brother’s hand and didn’t expect much more than him signing the paperwork at the right moment. We needn’t have feared that he would respond “oui” if the mayor asked him whether I entered this marriage under coercion or “non” if the mayor asked whether I truly was celibate.

And then finally: After months of work on Arnaud’s part, including no minor effort from his mother, aunt, and cousin, the entire civil ceremony took about twenty minutes and concluded with a few pictures and handshakes.

The mayor gave us a book on his town as a memento and presented us with our official French “Livret de Famille.” Our French Book of the Family features the mayor’s office’s formal declaration of our marriage and the formation of our French family unit, replete with government seals and signatures. The book’s subsequent pages have forms for completion as our family’s life continues, all to document the other big events in our little lives.