Five Years Later: Same-sex Marriage in France

March 21, 2018 in inQueery

People marching in support of same-sex marriage in Paris, January 2013 – Source: huffingtonpost.fr

Five years ago, as I was getting a taste of life in America, my home country of France was going through a critical societal transition. This development was being carried out under Francois Hollande, still a relatively new president, who stood for the renewed hopes of France’s left-wing after a decades-long reign of the right. Hollande’s ambition was to legalize same-sex marriage.

At the time, I was still buoyed by the success of Referendum 74, in which Washington State voters approved the state’s proposition to allow same-sex couples to wed. But from what I could see, France was descending down a much rockier path, and heated debates and demonstrations revealed something I would not have expected from it.

Let’s start with some historical context. In France, as in many other places, being gay has long been akin to a death-sentence. Then an ideological shift took place during the Enlightenment, with philosophers such as Montesquieu and Voltaire helping to challenge the stigma around same-sex relationships. As a result, France de-penalised male homosexuality fairly early for European standards, namely in 1791.

This has not stopped law-enforcement from harassing gay people for the next couple of centuries, while traditional ideas about sexuality have continued to thrive in a country defined by catholicism and patriarchal standards. Finally, in 1981, with the advent of a charismatic leftist president, Francois Mitterrand, gay rights got a new boost through several key policies aimed at dismantling systemic discrimination.

Then came the subject of marriage. The issue of allowing a form of legal union for same-sex couples came in the wake of the AIDS epidemic: as gay men lost their mate to the disease, they often found themselves lacking the legal resources that married couples had. The first attempt to combat those inequalities came in the form of  the PACS (or Pacte Civil de Solidarite).

Debates around the PACS got quite heated. An expected fracture appeared along party lines, with the left largely supporting the project and the right rejecting it. However, the right finally caved in, in part because of some of its base’s support for the law. Still, the final text leaves out any reference to family life and sentimental love in favor of a profitable form of companionship. Also, it turns out that most of the couples who chose to sign a PACS are actually hetero.

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Fast forward to 2012. France has a socialist president whose campaign promises included same-sex marriage. The time seems to have finally come to pass the law. Indeed, France at the time is lagging behind on the matter. Several countries such as Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and even the very catholic Portugal, have already given same-sex couples access to marriage.

In November 2012, the Conseil des Ministres submits a law to allow gay couples to marry. That same month, this proposal is received with massive protests all over France. Tens of thousands of people demonstrate to protect their vision of family (“Un papa et une maman.” or “One dad and one mom.”) and of children’s rights. In January of 2013, hundreds of thousands of people march the streets of Paris and other major French cities. The main organization behind those gatherings calls itself “La Manif pour tous” (“The Demonstration for All”) as a rebuke to the government’s envisioned “mariage pour tous” (“Marriage for All”). Pro gay-marriage groups responded by organizing their own demonstrations: about 60.000 people marched the streets of Paris in December and at least twice that then marched in January 2013.

The flag of La Manif pour tous shows what vision of family the movement is trying to protect. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Then, on March 24th, after the Assemblee Nationale (France’s equivalent to the House of Representatives) green-lit the law, new demonstrations turn ugly as some people start clashing with the police, who retaliate with tear gas. As the success of the law seems more and more ineluctable, arguments ramp up toward violence.  One leader of La Manif pour tous, Frigide Barjot -the pseudonym of conservative activist Virginie Merle- who turned every one of her public appearances into a spectacle declares: “Hollande wants blood, he’ll get it.” During a debate at the Senat, mainstream right wing representative Philippe Cochet warns: “You are murdering children.” in reference to the law’s provision on adoption for same-sex couples.

In an effort to avoid more public protest, the Senat vote was moved from May to April while the number of hours set aside for debate was lowered from 50 down to 25. Simultaneously, the gay-rights organization SOS Homophobie reported that homophobic attacks were reaching a peak.  Extremist groups started forming on the fringes of La Manif pour tous. One of them, which called itself Le Printemps francais is responsible for harassing major personalities who were supporting the law and vandalizing the premises of a pro-gay rights organization.  

A particular case captured the public’s attention: one of a gay couple that was savagely assaulted. Wilfred de Brujin shared a picture of his mangled face on Facebook and explained how his partner and him were attacked as they were walking together.

Spectacular displays of violence like the beating of de Brujin and his partner, added to the enraged protests of the religious right that shook the nation exposed  French society’s enduring bigotry. It was a rude awakening for progressives.

All the same, the law finally passed. On May 29th, the first French gay marriage was celebrated in Montpellier. They were the first of the 7367 same-sex couples who tied the knot that same year.

Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau, the first gay couple to get legally married in France, on their wedding day.  Source: lemonde.fr

But even among progressives, same-sex marriage still has its critics. For instance, some argue that allowing gay people to wed doesn’t foster an egalitarian society that embraces queer culture but forces queer people into a hetero-normative mold.

That is the stance author Benoit Duteurtre maintained in a column published in notable progressive paper Liberation. Among other things, he argued that most gay people don’t care about gay marriage and that the issue is not a uniting cause for the queer community. He further claimed that supporting gay marriage was in itself homophobic because pressuring same-sex couples to adopt the same lifestyle as mainstream heterosexual couples shows disdain for an edgy queer subculture.

For polyamorous advocate Lionel Labosse, the problem is marriage itself, instead he prescribes a “universal contract” that allows for more than two people -of any gender- to form a legal alliance.

And progressives squabbling about the point of gay marriage are not the only ones raining on the parade. There is one more serious issue to consider: France is still pretty homophobic. Indeed, a Word Values Survey poll published in 2013 seems to indicate that France is the most homophobic of the “Western” countries. It shows that a whooping 28.8% of French respondents would feel uncomfortable having a gay neighbor. To put this into perspective: only 7.4% and 11.1% of, respectively, Spanish and Swiss participants expressed similar feelings.

If the massive anti gay-rights demonstrations weren’t enough, this reminds us that the population of a country may not be as progressive as some of the policies that are enacted by its government. It is no accident if conservative political forces called for a referendum on the matter of same-sex marriage: they thought their worldview would prevail.

“Let us vote”: a montage created by La Manif pour tous calls for a vote on same-sex marriage. Source: info-bible.org

As a progressive French citizen I can only hope they were wrong on that. But then again it wouldn’t be the first time France’s leaders avoided consulting the public to allow for a progressive agenda to move forth as Mitterrand’s handling of the ban on the death penalty shows. Victory can leave a bitter taste when it’s carried by people making such anti-democratic statements as : “The street does not make the law.” (a point defended by then Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls).

What this story shows is that there is not neat, steady progression towards a better, more open society. We can celebrate apparent victories, but issues we take for settled have a surprising way of coming back to bite you in the ass.

 

 

 

Anne Errelis is a Staff Contributor at InQueery.