CHAMBÉRY — Seen from afar they might be mistaken for a father and son. Dominique is 56. Mohammed is 23. But talking to them and seeing how they interact, it's clear they're a couple in love.
They agreed to meet early in the morning, in a fast food restaurant in the Landiers industrial zone in Chambéry, southeastern France. It's an impersonal place, where people come and go without paying much attention to others around them. Dominique and Mohammed prefer it that way.
The couple shows up late, which somehow makes sense. It's their privilege. They're in love. The rest of the world can wait. Plus, they're newlyweds. After all of the euphoria, this is their chance to slow down a bit, to take stock of all they've just been through and think about what lies ahead.
Six weeks ago, the Paris Court of Cassation validated their marriage, finally ending what had been a long and exhausting legal battle. Their union had already been legally recognized twice before, including by the Court of Appeals in Chambéry, but the prosecutor general filed an additional appeal arguing that in this case, because theirs is a French-Moroccan union, the couple must conform to the laws of their respective countries. In the Kingdom of Morocco, same-sex marriage is outlawed.
"We were supposed to get married on Nov. 13, 2013," Dominique says. "The official announcements had gone out. The wedding hall was reserved. Food for 80 people had been ordered. But two days before our appointment with the mayor, the Chambéry prosecutor's office blocked our union. We were devastated. But we reacted quickly in the name of the law. We know a lot about adversity. And we don't shy away from it."
Love at first sight
Dominique and Mohammed met in 2010 at a gay nightclub in Marrakesh. It was love at first sight for the talkative, slightly anxious French garage owner and the calm, androgynous Moroccan who dreams of one day becoming a flight attendant.
Mohammed says he was always attracted to boys. His mother knows it, as does his older sister. But not his father. "Gays in Morocco have to hide," Mohammed explains. "Being public about it means risking your life. The police know the places where gay people gather, and they look the other way, provided it's discreet."
Dominique met Mohammed's family. He even slept over, but on the pretext that he was "a friend who was going to help me study abroad," Mohammed recalls. The young Moroccan did eventually make it to Europe, first to Spain and then to France, where he was reunited with Dominique. Mohammed later obtained residence papers and, in 2013, the couple decided to sign a civil union agreement, or PACS, as it's known in France.
Dominique, who heads a company with about a dozen employees, accepted his homosexuality much later in life. He was married and has three daughters. "But it wasn't working," he explains. "I was lying to myself, lying to others. I grew up in a well-heeled, somewhat strict family. I couldn't say anything to my parents."
His older brother intervened by organizing a family meeting and breaking the news about Dominique's homosexuality. Dominique didn't know about the meeting until later, when his father unexpectedly showed up at his office one day. "My son, you're momo … momosex … you like boys. How is that possible?" he remembers his father saying. "I didn't know what to say. I was speechless," Dominique recalls. "At the time, I had a different partner, and my father just said, "You can introduce me to him on Sunday." Those words freed me. Since then all of my friends have known that I'm gay."
Dominique and Mohammed dreamed of having a normal under-the-radar love story. But they also wanted to marry, which theoretically became possible nearly two years ago, when France authorized same-sex civil marriage. What they didn't know was that their situation, a first in France, would wind up drawing a huge amount of attention. As their judicial battle progressed, the couple made headlines. They also appeared on television, including in Morocco, where the couple was shown either blurred out or with their backs to the camera.
"The Hespress newspaper in Casablanca demanded I be stripped of my nationality," says Mohammed. "There were also death threats. A Muslim organization from Aix-les-Bains (France) said I was an embarrassment to the community and that I should be taken out."
Another association, a Franco-North African group called Ahluna that "defends the traditional family," filed a motion with the Court of Cassation opposing Mohammed and Dominique's marriage. According to the website Yagg, the attorney representing Ahluna also worked with the hard-line Catholic group "Manif pour Tous" (Demonstration for Everyone), which in 2012 and 2013 organized marches in Paris and elsewhere in France against gay marriage. Who could have guessed that a lone French-Moroccan couple would inspire a vast interreligious mobilization?
A 2013 march in Paris against same-sex marriage — Photo: Jean-François Gornet
To invalidate the couple's binational homosexual union, opponents relied on legalities: that "the law of a country of origin supercedes French law even if the wedding takes place in French territory." That dates back to 1981 when France ratified a series of bilateral conventions obliging binational couples — in the case of marriage — to conform to the laws of their respective countries. In addition to Morocco, the countries involved in the conventions are Poland, Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Slovenia, Tunisia, Algeria, Laos and Cambodia.
"There's no sense to this convention," says the couple's lawyer, Didier Besson. "Moroccan law also prohibits marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims. Do you think that would be possible to apply in France?" Mohammed says he personally knows many Moroccans who are married to French Catholics.
The Court of Cassation eventually decided in favor of Dominique and Mohammed by recalling that the law of another country can be dismissed in cases where it is "clearly incompatible with the public order, which, among other things, guarantees the essential rights and liberties of each person." The right in this case — that same-sex couples are free to marry in France — was formally established May 17, 2013.
The ruling will almost certainly set a precedent. "Right now there are 34 other binational homosexual couples waiting to get married," says Dominique.
And what about the future of this pioneering couple? Mohammed works in a clothing boutique at the moment but dreams about going back to school and eventually working for an airline. When it's his turn to respond, Dominique lets out an audible sigh. He says what he really wants now is just a normal life. In his neighborhood. Free from prying eyes.