Marriage for everyone is becoming a legal reality in France, in spite of staunch opposition, making France the ninth European country to legalise gay marriage, 13 years after the PACS civil union was adopted, expanding rights for same-sex couples. Debate on this has been forceful and sometimes violent, throwing light on fractures in society.
Legislation on gay marriage was a presidential campaign promise by France’s François Hollande. The law to recognise same sex marriage rights has the support of 65 percent of the French, according to some opinion polls. It also extends to adopting children, and there are already between 24,000 and 40,000 children being raised in same-sex couple households in France.
As the legislation has moved ahead, however, tens of thousands of French have mobilised to stop it. Their religion-based ideal is what they call the natural family, of one mother and one father plus children.
An anti-gay marriage campaigner said: “You’ve seen us for six months now, so stop being surprised. You can see this isn’t something violent or anti-gay. It’s a sincere and spontaneous expression by people who are saying, “Listen to us, because we’re telling you the truth about what a human being is.” It’s not about being gay or straight, it’s above all about people who make children between themselves. And that is the foundation of all our rights and laws.”
In 1982, France equalised the age of consent at 15 for homosexual relations as well as heterosexual. Some 200 years earlier, the French Revolution decriminalised same-sex relations in private. This dispute is a continuation about whether to recognise the same rights for gays.
Pro-gay marriage politician Jean-Luc Romero said: “I think this hatred has always existed. In every country there are always racists and anti-Semites, but it took a long time before we heard about them. Today people think that thanks to social media they can say all sorts of things and that it’s all anonymous.”
Opponents of this law insist their campaign is based on civilised, inclusive fraternity.
Activist Tugdual Derville said: “There have been no cars burned, no windows smashed, no policemen injured, and in our demos gay people are in the front line. There have been amazing encounters between people who may not otherwise have spoken to each other. So I would say the “Protest for Everyone” has not only been behind the verbal fight against homophobia, but has also been practically active by introducing people.”
But there have been violent clashes.
One furious rights activist said: “The fascists are on the streets more and more, and we can’t do anything about it. Whenever they meet they say they’re defending children and the family. Work, family, fatherland – that should remind you of something. We don’t want it coming back.”
Even if Hollande’s flagship social reform law becomes reality, its opponents have said they will not give up.
We interviewed David Paternotte, a researcher at the Free University in Brussels and the author of “Demanding Gay Marriage in Belgium, France and Spain,” a comparative study of movements in these three countries.
Sophie Desjardin, euronews: “It’s quite striking in France how virulent the mobilisation has been in a country that says it’s secular and open. What’s your explanation for this paradox?”
David Paternotte: “Yes, it is a surprise, and when the draft law was presented in the Assemblée Nationale, we didn’t expect that the opposition would be this strong. But we found in the demonstrations that the dynamic was both against the president and, paradoxically, even before the debates got started, the dynamic related to old divisions in French society, like the question of the Republic or secularity, which have never been accepted by some groups.”
euronews: “Historically, France was one of the pioneers on the subject, with homosexual relations decriminalised in 1791 during the Revolution, while in some countries in Europe evolution would only come around in the 20th century. What has happened since then?”
Paternotte: “There was a paradoxical effect in that the movement for homosexual rights wound down in the countries that depenalised it. Homosexual movements became much weaker than in countries like England or Germany, and therefore demands grew weaker.”
euronews: “The so-called Catholic countries, with more practicing Catholics than in France, such as Spain or Portugal, adopted this law almost without a ripple. Why hasn’t France been like that?”
Paternotte: “In countries like Spain, it was part of the movement towards becoming modern, a movement where people wanted to put some distance between them and their legacy of dictatorship, while in France the question of religion comes up far less in political debate, since it’s considered to have been acquired already, and so there isn’t this desire to secularise society, which could have been a factor in countries like Spain. What’s important is the political power that religion can have, and we’re seeing this today in France, that all the opponents are linked, or almost all of them, to religious groups. Some of them have their origins in very old groups of the French right – royalists, Catholics, anti-republican, anti-secular. And the church also has its representatives in the halls of political power, essentially on the right but also within the Socialist Party.”
euronews: “It’s clear that those who are against marriage for everyone are hanging onto a traditional view of the family, driven by the Catholic religion. The biggest sticking point is about children, isn’t it?”
Paternotte: “Absolutely, and that is stronger in France than in other countries: the worry over what could happen to children raised by parents of the same sex, but also a broader worry about who can be a parent, and how can a family be created or not, which revolves around the definition of the family, the definition of affiliation.”
euronews: “Why is it stronger in France?”
Paternotte: “That’s an excellent question. A lot of people have tried to work on that. Researchers looking into these questions have sought to explain how certain knowledge has been built up, how France has a ballast of Catholic thinking which on the other hand has been mixed with a sort of psychoanalysis and a certain anthropology which have stressed these notions, which may have created more intellectual barriers to moving rights along than in other countries.”
euronews: “The French, in a country said to be based on human rights, say they are not homophobic or racist or xenophobic, but when it’s about giving minorities more rights or visibility in society, they get very defensive. Doesn’t this reaction conceal a latent rejection that we have trouble admitting to?”
Paternotte: It’s true there are some people who are more reticent. The question is how far are they willing to accept homosexuality. There’s a difference here between the PACS civil union, which people today seem ready to accept, including accepting improvements in the civil union in order to refuse outright marriage. The problem is marriage, and I think the main problem, beyond homosexuality, for most of the opponents, is really to know what model of family is created in French society. There’s a desire to keep the family based on heterosexuality. This is what the opposition is concentrating on.”