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In Colette's Chéri, I do not understand what is going on with the marriage settlement. The eponymous hero reports to his lover, Léa, that his fianceé's mother, Marie-Laure, had wanted Chéri and her daughter to maintain separate bank accounts. This enraged his own mother:

      "Le régime dotal! le régime dotal! Pour quoi pas le conseil judiciaire? C'est une insulte personnelle! personnelle! La situation de fortune de mon fils!"

Colette. Chéri. 1920. Ed. Christina Tumminello. "La Collection Française" de CPI. New York: Chatterley Press International, 2006. p. 46. All subsequent page references to the French are to this edition.

      "Separate bank accounts! separate bank accounts! Why not a trustee? It's a personal insult, a personal insult. You forget that my son has his own fortune!"

Colette. Chéri and The Last of Chéri. Trans. Roger Senhouse, 1951. Intro. Judith Thurman. New York: Farrar, Strauss, 2001. pp. 47–48. All subsequent page references to the translation are to this edition.

Chéri says that ultimately, he was able to resolve the matter:

      "C'est là-dessus que j'ai eu la communauté réduite aux acquêts.
      —Je ne comprends pas.
      —Les fameuses plantations de canne que le pauvre petit prince Ceste a laissées par testament à Marie-Laure....
      —Oui....
      —Faux testament. Famille Ceste très excitée! Procès possible! Tu saisis?"
      Il jubilait.
      "Je saisis."

pp. 47–48.

      "I managed to arrange that the settlement should apply only to property acquired after marriage."
      "I simply don't understand."
      "The famous sugar plantations that poor little Prince Ceste left to Marie-Laure by his will...."
      "Yes?"
      "Forged will! Fury of the Ceste family! Lawsuit pending! Now d'you get it?"
      He crowed.
      "I get it."

p. 49

Unlike Léa, I do not get it. Why does Charlotte equate keeping separate accounts to having a trustee, and what is insulting about either? Also, what is the situation with Prince Ceste's will? How would having the settlement apply only to post-marital acquisitions resolve the difficulties Marie-Laure faces with regard to the possibly forged document?

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  • conseil judiciaire is mistranslated. It is not really a trustee. It's a court-appointed fiduciary. They are translating it from tuteur, the new term for cj.
    – Lambie
    Feb 22 at 23:07

1 Answer 1

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There are some technical legal terms here for which the English translation doesn't give a complete picture. I have relied on Les régimes matrimoniaux by François Terré and Philippe Simler (7th ed, Editions Dalloz, 2015) to understand the law. That book focuses on current law, especially after a reform of 1965, but has a lot of historical background from the Middle Ages and earlier.

In summary, what's being discussed here is a prenuptial agreement, with the main problem being what will happen to property inherited by the wife after the marriage. Edmée's mother proposes that the property will become her own (the husband cannot sell it, she gets it back on divorce, she can leave it to her own children when she dies), along with any other income she generates during the marriage. Chéri's mother (probably) wants everything to be pooled so that her son can make use of all the wealth freely. They "compromise" on a setup where Edmée will receive the inheritance, but where other marital earnings will be held in common. But in fact, because Chéri and Charlotte know Marie-Louise is about to be sued and lose the sugar plantations, the bargain is to their advantage.

What is happening is all quite implicit, even in French. The English translation is misleading on some points which has obscured the meaning of the interchange, as noted below.

Marital property and the law

"Le régime dotal" was one of several possible régimes matrimoniaux under French marriage law. A regime is a set of rules about the handling of the couple's property, agreed by them at the time of marriage. The régime dotal, now abolished, is where the wife brings a dowry (le dot) which the husband administers but does not fully possess. He could not ordinarily sell any of the land, and if the marriage were dissolved then the wife would get the dowry back. Also, under this regime, property acquired by the wife after the marriage might be added to the dowry portion, or placed under the wife's sole control, depending on what the couple had agreed in the marriage contract - in either case, property she inherited after the marriage was isolated from the husband's control. These rules come from Roman law but were substantially modified in the French civil code.

The translation about "separate bank accounts" misses a legal nuance, because cash (and any movable property, as opposed to land) was not inalienable under the dotal regime. The husband could spend the wife's dowry money freely. If there were a divorce then he would have to repay it. The sugar plantations apparently owned by the mother, Marie-Laure, are immovable property to which the notion of separation does apply.

The main alternative was the régime de communauté, where the couple pool their assets. They were still under the husband's control, as were any assets acquired subsequent to the marriage, since the law before 1938 did not give women full legal capacity. Variations included application of community property only to a subset of assets. Another possibility was the régime de séparation de biens, where the spouses keep their own property entirely separate - this could also be imposed after marriage on the wife's initiative if the husband had made some terrible financial decision.

Another legal nuance that is not obvious from the translation is that "la communauté réduite aux acquêts" does not precisely mean "the settlement should apply only to property acquired after marriage". The term "acquêt" here refers specifically to things which are "acquis à titre onéreux pendant le mariage" (Terré and Simler, Introduction, "Objet du régime matrimonial"). That does not cover inherited property, but only those things acquired by exchanging something of value (e.g. labour for cash, or the sale of goods).

Finally, "le conseil judiciare" refers in this context to an arrangement where somebody who is not competent to handle their own affairs can have their property placed in the care of another. The English term "trustee" works generically for this; some English-language jurisdictions call the setup "guardianship" or "conservatorship".

Socially, all of this comes into play only if there is a lot of wealth involved, or the wealth of the spouses is very unequal, or there is reason to believe that the husband will be useless at managing it, or that separation or divorce is likely. The majority of couples would have owned no land, and not much wealth in general, and could opt for a community property regime without difficulty.

The scene, with notes

"Le régime dotal! le régime dotal! Pour quoi pas le conseil judiciaire? C'est une insulte personnelle! personnelle! La situation de fortune de mon fils!"

The mother of the bride has proposed that the marriage be under the dowry arrangement. This limits the ability of the husband to use the wife's wealth, which might be a good idea if he has a lot of debt or is terrible with money. Also, if the wife were to inherit a valuable sugar plantation then it would be hers, and although the husband could have the benefit of the profits, he would not be able to sell it, or take out a loan secured against it.

The groom's mother considers this to be an insult because her son has lots of money and has acted prudently. She hyperbolically suggests that the son may as well be excluded from managing the couple's assets entirely - a step beyond the régime de séparation de biens where his stuff and her stuff would be kept separate. Presumably she is holding out for the full régime de communauté, where her son will have full control of his own wealth, that brought in by his wife, and anything that either of them gain during the marriage.

"Mère adorée, de la douceur. Imite-moi, imite ma charmante belle-mère, qui est tout miel... et tout sucre." C'est là-dessus que j'ai eu la communauté réduite aux acquêts.

The son passes a coded hint to his mother about sugar, as they both know the situation regarding the sugar plantations. The hint having been dropped, the mothers agree on a plan of limited community property. The husband and wife retain ownership of their assets predating the marriage, and the community property regime will apply to anything acquired after the marriage for consideration. The sugar plantation, if inherited, would be the wife's alone, but other wealth generated during the marriage would be shared. (And "shared" means under the husband's control by default.)

Marie-Laure is now happy because she still expects to pass the plantations to her daughter, and has managed to exclude the possibility of them being sold off by a feckless husband. The husband will still be able to use the dowry cash, as he would before. He will now also get the benefit of any of her daughter's gains during the marriage (which under her plan, would have gone into the dowry pool). But she feels she has struck a winning bargain.

But Chéri and his mother know that what they have actually agreed is no concession at all, because they have inside information about the sugar plantations. He explains that "la vieille Lili" had the news from "le cadet Ceste". It is not yet common knowledge, and the phrase "procès possible" suggests that a lawsuit is only being discussed with the Ceste family - Marie-Louise doesn't know about it.

From this process, Marie-Louise is likely to lose the land, perhaps after spending a lot of money on lawyers. In this case there will be no plantation to inherit, and perhaps a substantial diminishment in Marie-Louise's other wealth as a result of having to compensate for the fraud, and pay legal costs. So Chéri feels he has come out ahead, because the marriage will now be under a regime that is more favourable to him, and he has given up fighting for an inheritance that he wasn't going to get anyway.

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  • régime de communauté de biens: community property regime (or arrarngement).
    – Lambie
    Feb 22 at 23:02
  • I agree with most of what you say, but it should be pointed out that it is Chéri imitating his mother's angry, sarcasm re the régime dotal, which she is against. She would have wanted a communion de bien (jointly owned property) All we are actually told re the entire marriage property thing is in this scene. +1 for the sugar.
    – Lambie
    Feb 23 at 23:52

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