Exclusive: This gay couple was told to divorce by the government
At least a dozen loving same-sex couples have been told that they need to get divorced if they want legal rights.
The impasse has affected gay spouses caught in a shocking legal tangle between the British and French governments.
Leandro Barreto and François Souyri are approaching their tenth wedding anniversary, having first entered a civil partnership in 2008.
The London pair also adopted a son, who is seven next month.
But when the family considered moving to François’ native France, they got caught in a conflict that culminated in officials telling them that they need to get divorced.
Leandro, a 43-year-old game developer, told PinkNews: “That’s not something we can do; it’s not an option for us…we’re just caught in limbo”.
Both France and the UK allow same-sex marriage, so recognition shouldn’t be an issue – but the couple are one of many who have fallen through the cracks between the two systems, leaving their entire family in an uncertain legal situation.
The issue is further complicated for Leandro and François, as the lack of recognition for their marriage means that their son’s adoption is also not legally valid in France.
Leandro said: “He cannot be adopted just by François because we’re both his parents, and he cannot be recognised as both of ours because they don’t recognise our union.
“If something happened to one of us over there, for instance, it would be a big problem, because my son has no rights in France.
“To recognise their adoption they first need to recognise our marriage, and they can’t do that.
“It’s a really delicate situation for us; it’s caused a lot of anxiety and uncertainty.”
He added: “I don’t want to tell my son that his dad is not his dad in France. That would be too hard for him to process.”
The problems faced by the couple stem from the equal marriage law in England and Wales.
When same-sex marriage was rolled out in 2014, couples in civil partnerships were offered the chance to ‘convert’ their partnerships to a marriage.
Under this process, couples were given marriage certificates backdated to the original date of their civil partnerships without a ceremony.
But the conversions conflict with the way marriage is fundamentally meant to work in other countries.
In France, legally-recognised marriages must have had a wedding ceremony with witnesses, and the marriage certificate must reflect the date of the wedding itself.
This means that backdated marriages from the UK are fundamentally incompatible with French law, and French officials say they are unable to recognise them.
This left Leandro and François in limbo – and everything they have tried to solve the problem has thus far failed.
Firstly, they tried to get married in France, and were were partway through planning their second wedding when they came up against a Kafkaesque barrier of bureaucracy.
The pair were told that couples cannot marry in France if they are married in another country, even if their existing marriage is itself not recognised in France.
“We said, we’ll just get married there…but then we were told that legally we’re not allowed to”, Leandro added.
“We’re married but also not married. They just say, there’s nothing we can do for you. Computer says no.”
Shockingly, the solution suggested by French government officials was for the couple to get divorced in the UK, and to remarry in France.
But even that ludicrous advice didn’t help, as the UK requires actual grounds for divorce that the loving couple clearly don’t meet.
The sham divorce would also require the couple to live apart for several years, and could have an impact on their son’s legal status.
Leandro was emotional at the prospect.
“That’s not an option for us. I think it’s outrageous.
“A government of a country advising people to get divorced. Why on earth would it happen? It’s completely nonsensical.
“Even if we wanted to do it, we have no grounds to divorce.”
Watch Leandro’s heartbreaking interview here:
The couple are not alone in their bureaucratic hell.
Leandro and François discovered several other couples who were in the same situation, and they formed a Facebook group to discuss the problem.
Now, the couples are suing the French government, in a string of actions aimed at finding a solution.
Leandro said: “The defence has not replied to our concerns. It’s been about six months.
“The court is trying to have a hearing in November, but they need to get the French government to respond first, otherwise nothing can go ahead.
“We have no end in sight to the problem.”
The couple don’t know if their future is in the UK after Brexit, adding a sense of urgency to their issue.
Leandro added: “We cannot make any plans for the future. We can’t plan ahead, and we don’t know what to do.
“It’s a technicality, but it’s something that has real consequences in our lives.”
And he said both governments were at fault for leaving the two of them in this situation.
“The French government is going by the letter, so it’s basically just unresolved technicalities.
“On the British side, we had the rushed legislation that they did just for electoral purposes. They didn’t do it in a proper way.”
PinkNews sent multiple questions to the UK’s Government Equalities Office, which created the conversion process, asking about whether international standards for marriage were taken into account.
It did not respond to these questions.
A UK Foreign Office spokeswoman told PinkNews it was “aware that some couples are facing this issue.”
They added: “French legal processes related to marriage recognition are a matter for the French government.
“We have, however, referred individual cases in the past to the French Embassy in London.
“We also understand that couples facing this issue in France are able to contact the Human Rights Ombudsman who can intervene on problems with an administration of the State.”
French MP Alexandre Holroyd, who is responsible for representing French citizens living across Northern Europe, spoke to PinkNews about the problem.
Mr Holroyd explained that he had been contacted by four or five couples so far.
“This is not an isolated incident,” he said, referring to Leandro and François.
The situation was down to an “administrative and legal misunderstanding,” he said, but it was “true that civil partnerships have fallen victim to the differences between the two systems.”
And, he said, “it causes immense trouble to the people who are subject to it.
“There are people who are angry about it, which is understandable.”
The En Marche! representative explained that “what it boils down to is the way all our civil documents are very restrictive and very inflexible.”
He added: “It’s an important issue to me, and it’s a question of rights, especially from the perspective of the French citizen in the couple, who should have a right to have his nationality recognised.
“I’ve written to the (French) Justice Minister, who’s the only person who can change things.”
When PinkNews approached the French Justice Ministry, a spokesperson confirmed it was aware of the issue and insisted that “a response will be made very soon”.
But weeks have passed since our initial inquiry, with no further response.
Mr Holroyd, whose party leader Emmanuel Macron became French President earlier this year, said he had received a similarly discouraging response from the Ministry.
“I suspect it’s going to be a long process,” he said, “but it’s one of those issues which needs to be solved.
“It’s both terrible from a personal perspective and also terrible from a fairness perspective, because you’d expect any French person who has a spouse to be able to share his nationality with his spouse and with his children.”
He called the situation a “nightmare”, adding: “To go down that rabbit hole, when you’re dealing with an administration who aren’t able to deliver, and you go from institution to institution to institution, and all you get is a letter saying they can’t do anything – it must be immensely frustrating.
“We as En Marche! are very supportive of same-sex marriage in France, so it’s a bit ludicrous that the conclusion of that whole political fight doesn’t have the ability to deliver the equivalent in the UK.
“Clearly, ideologically there’s absolutely no question that there’s enthusiasm to find a solution.”
The first step, he said, was acknowledging that there was an issue to deal with.
“It’s important that people realise: it’s a problem.”
The issue has also been raised in the UK by Lord Collins of Highbury, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development.
Speaking to PinkNews, the Labour peer said: “It simply cannot be right that another EU state does not recognise the marriages of those us who converted from civil partnerships.
“I am married and my husband is Spanish, we have been together for over 20 years.
“We have always seen ourselves as citizens of the EU for the very good reason that we have family and homes in both countries. That is how we see ourselves.”
The peer added: “For many couples, the anxiety is what rights they will have to live together post-Brexit.
“Some have explored the issue of changing or having dual nationality to acquire EU rights.”
The peer first raised the issue in the House of Lords in July 2016 when another couple, Hakim Boudjemai and his husband Colin, reached out to him for help.
Hakim is French, and Colin is a UK citizen living in London.
When the couple spoke to the French government, they received the same guidance as Leandro and François: end your marriage.
Lord Collins explained that the couple were told their backdated marriage certificate is “contrary to the fundamental principles of French law”.
The peer urged the UK government to give assurances to the couple, and LGBT charity Stonewall also raised the issue. They made little progress.
Lord Collins said: “It simply cannot be right that another EU state does not recognise the marriages of those us who converted from civil partnerships.”
Speaking to PinkNews, Hakim said that for him and the other couples, “it has been a long journey so far, and most of us, still think the hardest part is still in front of us.”
He added: “For us, these in-limbo families, the Brexit effects started on the Friday of the referendum.
“It’s not about economic [reasons] or benefits, but just about human beings who want to share their love for each other.”
Hakim added that awareness of their difficulties was low enough that it meant authorities could ignore the issue.
“We need higher profile cases to urge the UK government to amend the law to ensure the process of UK gay marriage is internationally recognised without discrimination,” he said.
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“We still need further pressure on the French government, despite pro-gay attitude of President Macron.
“March 2019 [and Brexit] will be there before we know it.”
For all of the couples, one thought lingers: would this have happened if we were a straight couple?
Leandro adds: “I don’t think homophobic is the right word, but it’s definitely discrimination. Once again, we’re not being treated the same under the law.
“A heterosexual couple would never have to go through this.”