The Union Territory of Pondicherry has never been the same after 1962 when the French offered Pondicherrians the option to choose the French nationality or to remain Indian as the former French colony merged with India. While some grabbed the opportunity despite an uncertainty that loomed over their identities and future, others did not — either out of a fear of the unknown, or a sense of loyalty to their new country, India.
In the years that followed, some French national Pondicherrians moved to France and found jobs such as in the French army (soldats), while others stayed back in Pondicherry. Little did they realize that in time, their nationality would be both a blessing and a curse.
Laetitia, a French nationality Pondicherrian recalls her childhood in Pondicherry saying, 'The local jobless fellas easily identified which local girl had the French nationality. The Lycee Francais and Cluny Convent was a favorite hunting ground to seek out these girls. It was quite common those days for such guys to claim they had sexual relations with the girl, often threatening the girl's father to spread the news around, knowing that the girl would have difficulty procuring a husband from a good family once the character verification checks were complete. Moreover, the family would be forever disgraced. The ideal of a virgin daughter was important enough for some fathers to hand over their girl to the man in marriage. Several did not fall into the trap and instead contacted the police.’
Today however there's been a slight improvisation in the courting process. The male seeking a French nationality Pondicherrian bride does not want to pay her father the dowry, nor a commission to the broker who arranges marriages. So he figures out that the easiest way is to get the girl to 'fall in love' with him. As they say, 'There's no dowry in love marriage, Maa!'
During my time in Pondicherry, I've met male students with an advanced level in French who enrolled in a class for beginners because the teacher was a single, French nationality Pondicherrian who already had her family and bearings in France. It was here in this class that the males hoped to get her to fall in love with them.
Learning French for ‘Marriage Purposes’
Special classes called Cours Visas (visa classes) are organised in Pondicherry for those applying for a residence permit in France. The majority of the students are those who intend to settle in France after marrying a French national Pondicherrian. Following the course of 40 hours over ten days, the candidate has to pass an OFII (Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration) exam and attend an interview at the Lycée Français(French School).
Sophie, a French teacher in Pondicherry says ‘I’ve had the opportunity to teach students who were learning French solely for ‘marriage purposes’. I can’t even imagine how many Euros or Rupees they traded to acquire this nationality marriage. It is disconcerting and surprising for a teacher to have students whose motivation is not really the language but the consequences to follow (marriage, visa, nationality). The final examination marks are eagerly awaited as if France has already come in sight, little by little’.
Credit: Suraj Appukuttan
Why the craze for France?
Vijay who is seeking a French nationality Pondicherry origin bride is crystal clear about his intentions and emphatically states, 'We want to go to France and live because we are not obliged to even work there. The French government gives money to the unemployed. We have to simply take that money and send it back to Pondicherry to our parents so they can buy a lot of jewels or a house. You know, 1000 Euros is over 70,000 rupees in India! It’s preferable to find a bride already staying in France so she can support us, while we send all our unemployment dole back home'.
When questioned as to why most males insist on a bride of Pondicherrian origin and not any French woman, he explains, 'Our own girls can be controlled properly as they have Indian upbringing. You can't trust these white French women. They cheat, they are independent and they can throw us back to India anytime if we don't treat them with respect'.
He is scornful of the Rajasthani tour guides in Pondicherry who would jump at the opportunity to marry a passing French tourist or intern or retired woman. Vijay’s loyalties are clearly with Pondicherry origin French brides.
The Role of Brokers
Suganya works for Sri Kamatchi Marriage Thagaval Maiyam in an office in Pondicherry where the walls are stacked with files segregated by the potential bride and groom’s education qualifications. They are mostly Indian passport holders looking for French nationality Pondicherrians preferably settled in France.
Suganya affirms that brokers can earn between 1,00,000 to 5,00,000 rupees in commission from each party. Parents are eager to see their kids settled in France to enjoy a better life. It's also a question of prestige. For their part, unscrupulous brokers will stop at nothing to speed up the selection process, often lying about the socio-economic status of the parties involved. A jobless male in Pondicherry with no savings, house or car to his name is presented to the girl's parents in France, as being the descendent of an ex-commissioner or mayor. Suganya states emphatically, 'I'm not interested in marrying a French national, and even if I do, I'll never pay those huge amounts of dowry.
What about French nationality brides and grooms residing in Pondy?
Bagalavan Perier, a journalist is an example of the many Pondicherrians whose parents opted for French nationality in the 1960s but did not apply for the French passport back then simply because they had no immediate plans to travel. Perier married a local Pondicherrian in late 2015 and plans to apply for a French passport after submitting the required papers. After this comes through, his wife too can apply for nationality and they can move to France. He is quite aware that it will be difficult for the young couple to build a life from scratch in France. And therein, lies a great dilemma for the hopeful future grooms.
Is it better to marry a French nationality girl living in Pondy or one living in France? Vijay believes it's a Catch-22 situation and says, 'If we marry a local French nationality girl, we are sure she has a good character but the problem is we have to move to France together, and start a life and work hard because we have no bearings or finances at all. However if we marry a girl raised in France, we have the springboard ready, the house is ready, the money is ready. She is already earning or at least has the unemployment dole. The problem is these girls are too advanced. They are Tamil by origin but 'French' in upbringing. Did you know one Pondicherrian guy recently committed suicide in France because his bride was too advanced, disobeying him and going to malls and gyms?'
Not everyone wants French national brides
Unlike Vijay, Vasanth K who runs an arts and crafts shop in Pondicherry is not looking for a French national bride. He says, 'We chased the French out of Pondy so why are we now desperately following them back to France? Every year, we proudly celebrate Pondicherry's Independence from the French colonialists, and how we were saved by India. So where does this nationalistic pride disappear when we flee back to our 'oppressors’ in France? Something is wrong somewhere.'
French nationality brides marrying Indian nationals
Whether French nationals or Indian nationals, the women have their own specific experiences within these marriages. Bernadette Succube, a French national Pondicherrian married a local in 1992 and moved to France with him the same year. But this story was different. It was not he who paid her family a dowry for her nationality, but her mother who in fact paid him 5000 francs to help the young couple start a life in France. Talk about having one's cake and eating it too.
Through marriage with Bernadette, he got the French nationality in 1995, and soon after, brought his family members to France. After a while, she noticed that he started provoking fights with her for the slightest reason. Now that he got what he wanted, he no longer needed her and started demanding gold rings and gold watches, and talking down to her. She understood what was happening and asked for a divorce which came through.
Bernadette knows that the French government cannot revoke the nationality of men like these who see the woman as a means to an end. There are no legal provisions in place as of now, however the government is getting increasingly wary about nationality marriages, and have increased the waiting period for nationality to five years.
Indian woman marrying a French national Pondicherrian
The Indian bride searching for a French nationality groom has to be doubly careful. Consider the case of Saranya whose marriage was arranged with a French national Indian living in France. He came to Pondichery for the marriage, and Saranya’s father paid for the multiple receptions and parties in Pondicherry and Chennai. The groom was paid 20,00,000 Rupees in dowry and gold. After the marriage, Saranya was left to stay with her mother-in-law in Chennai, with her husband showing no intentions of taking her back to France. Her mother-in-law warned her that if she tried approaching the French Consulate in Pondicherry, she would falsely accuse Saranya of stealing her passport. Her father at this point realized they had been defrauded by a man who had nothing in France.
Father Maria Joseph from Sacred Heart Cathedral in Pondicherry explained that the church was very strict with celebrating mass for those in nationality marriages because of the high degree of fraud involved. He said ‘No church marriage will be held unless the couple presents proof of their marriage being registered at the municipality office, and the boy produces a bachelor certificate.’
The modus operandi in fraud marriages is simple enough. The male marries the woman informally, collects the dowry and gold but completely evades registering the marriage officially. There is no proof of the marriage, and the girl’s family is left penniless with all of their life’s savings spent on a fraud son-in-law.
When a French nationality bride marries a white French male
When Thierry (name changed upon request), a French teacher in Pondicherry introduced his Franco-Pondicherrian wife to his male students, they were enraged saying, 'He is already a white French male. He does not need her nationality! Why couldn't he marry another white woman? Why did he take our girl away? One of us could have had her without paying dowry. Her nationality is gone to waste!'
These words reflect a larger mindset where the woman is nothing but an object ‘to take’, ‘to have’, ‘to use’, ‘to do away with’. It is of little consequence if the teacher fell in love with this Franco-Pondicherrian woman, and together shares a successful, beautiful marriage and life projects together with her.
A retired French woman who did not wish to be named told me, ‘The number of fake documents circulating around Pondicherry is shocking. Identity theft, impersonation, bribing officials to procure documents – they’re trying everything to get the French nationality’.
A few Pondicherrians beg to differ saying that the French too benefited enormously from their rule in Pondicherry, going as far as to enlist locals to fight for France in World War II, in Algeria and Vietnam. Locals are taken aback when French expats comment on how ‘Pondicherry today is nothing but a wasteful expenditure for France. It’s not even a French overseas department like Reunion Island which establishes France’s presence in the Indian Ocean thereby justifying expenses. Pondy today, is nothing but an ex colony completely under India.’
Indeed colonialism was never intended to be a simple affair.
Geraldine V, a French nationality Pondicherrian living in France however believes that the overall situation is not as dark as made out to be. She says, ‘It is true that France is like the ‘El Dorado’ with nationality marriage being the vehicle to get there, however we can find some people who respect the marriage and are happily-married."
While it is true that ‘marriages of interest’ are a universal phenomenon and certainly not confined to Pondicherry, it does become problematic when unsuspecting and naive families are cheated and thrown into debt and despair. A possible solution would be to start educating locals in Pondicherry about the realities of ‘nationality marriage’ and the legal aspects of it. Perhaps create a trilingual (French, Tamil and English) platform on the internet or distribute weekly free newsletters where individuals in such marriages could write about their experiences both positive and negative.
In India where arranged marriages are still common, nationality marriage is viewed as just another arrangement where the end goal is migration to France. If cheating, desertion and deception were taken out of the equation, it could actually be a good thing for the newly weds to assimilate and build a future in the land of liberté, égalité et fraternité.