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Gay Marriage in France: Change Now?

By Marie Demarque

On Tuesday, the debate began at the French Parliament on a bill that would give gay couples the right to marry and adopt children. Two days before, some 125,000 people marched through the streets of Paris for the second time since December. Supporters of ‘Marriage for All’ were responding to anti-gay-marriage militants and their January 13 demonstration that brought at least 340,000 people to the capital. The forces supporting gay marriage demanded that socialist president François Hollande honor his campaign pledge and act decisively to enact gay marriage legislation.

Some 5,500 amendments have been tacked onto the gay rights bill—a heavy load indeed for any rapid passage, let alone implementation. Yet the goal is a simple one—to bring France, at least legally, into alignment with its neighbors who have looked on in horror for years at how the French treat their gay and lesbian citizens. Hollande's dawdling on the issue has slowed the process and allowed it to become even more contentious issue, argued through street protests.

Allowing marriage and adoption for gay couples was one of Hollande’s “60 commitments” during the last French presidential campaign. After he was elected in May, Hollande implemented some of the reforms he had announced, including a 75 percent tax on high incomes, but the measure was declared unconstitutional by France's Cour de Cassation. The measure was not implemented. But the bill on gay marriage is unlikely to win passage on 2013 first semester, due to the raft of amendments, 96 percent proposed by the the right wing UMP party, and each of which must be disposed of. Which means that marriage and the right for gays and lesbians to adopt children will be unlikely to win approval in less than a year after Hollande’s inauguration. During this time, those for and against gay marriage are facing off, and the new French president has seemed hesitant on a topic he marked as a central issue early in his term of office.

Hollande is often known as a person who shuns conflicts and division, leading him to wait for the calm after the storm rather than taking on a contentious issue head-on. Legislating such a huge cultural issue requires rapid and authoritative action, as most of his predecessors have done before him.

Indeed, as soon as he took office, last socialist president François Mitterrand urged a repeal of the death penalty on September 30, 1981. It took five month. At the time, 62 percent of the French population were still in favor of retaining the death penalty. But it was argued that the death penalty had not been invoked in France since 1977. So Mitterrand pressed ahead.

In January 1975, the French parliament approved the law legalizing abortion. This happened under right wing presidency of Valery Giscard d’Estaing, elected the previous May. It goes without saying that most of his political backers did not approve at all such an advance in women’s rights. These presidents were able to pass such laws because of their quick, decisive leadership. Such social legislation is difficult to pass in France if it's done slowly. It gives too much time for the opposition to organize massive demonstrations and pressure the legislature.

Hollande made a comparably controversial promise, and there seems to be little doubt  he will keep it—eventually. Other European nations including Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Sweden have already allowed gay marriage for at least 10 years. In these countries, even the Catholic Church or, in the case of Sweden, the dominant Lutheran Church, has ended by accepting or supporting gay marriage.

Opposing such a measure is quite a striking figure—Frigide Barjot (a nickname inspired by the famous actress Brigitte Bardot and means “frigid madwoman” in French). This 50 year-old eccentric former student at Sciences-Po Paris (where François Hollande once studied) introduces herself as “Jesus’s press officer.” She is a huge fan of Pope Benedict XVI, and always dressed in pink. As a singer, her greatest success was "Make Love to Me with Two Fingers," whispering, "With three, it does not come. With one, it's not enough." This woman is the public face opposed to gay marriage in France. On the adoption issue, she argues, “Biological kinship can not be replaced by a social relationship. It is not possible. The man must remain the father,” and considers gay-marriage a dangerous challenge to the social fabric.

The French president met with her last Friday, along with other anti-gay marriage representatives after their large demonstration on January 13 in Paris. But there may be little point to any of these demonstrations and counter-demos if the President is not about to reconsider his decision.

Robert Albertson is an American citizen, living in Paris for more than four decades with his same-sex partner, Jacques. They have no plan to adopt a child, which is the main conflict issue on this bill. “In the simple, banal aspects of our day in / day out lives, probably very little would change once the law is enacted,”Albertson says. “The change—a and obviously, the absence of such in the past—comes from the statute which the law brings: in a word, the change in the perception of all who behold you.” Since 1999, he points out, same-sex couples have been allowed to contract a PACS agreement—a civil-union partnership that applies to both straight and gay/lesbian couples. This law recognizes same-sex couples in the same fashion as mixed sex couples with respect to taxes, inheritance and similar bureaucratic interactions with the government, but does not give them the right to a civil marriage, hence the right to adopt children, or to pass on their pension to their spouses.

In May 2012, 60 percent of the French population indicated their support of gay marriage, while 56 percent was in favor of adoption by same-sex couples. On January 2013, these poll figures have dropped respectively to 57 percent and 45 percent, according to an Opinion Way Survey for the right-wing French daily Le Figaro and news channel LCI—suggesting there are consequences to this strategy of letting time pass. Another poll out this past weekend showed that support had gone up from 60% to 63% (Ifop institute). The problem is that, first, Hollande’s reluctance might have fed doubts about this law in public opinion. Second, letting pro and con face off only polarizes society even further, making compromise more difficult.

An extended wait for a law to be introduced in Parliament has only led to increasingly vocal homophobic rhetoric, especially on social networks and in the course of what has become a regular series of mass demonstrations for and against gay-marriage.   

The media, too, is inflaming passions. The moderate-left weekly Le Nouvel Observateur has adopted a manifesto, “To Us, It’s YES.” Even the right-wing Catholic review Temoignage Chretien (Christian Testimony) has endorsed this bill in an editorial, re-published by the leading national daily Le Monde. The impact of its statement is even more interesting in that it comes from a religious publication: "Homosexuality has been persecuted or oppressed for many centuries. However, it is a sexual orientation as legitimate and worthy as heterosexuality. Marriage is a contract chosen by people more freely and willingly today than ever. … Denying homosexuals that contract would add yet another layer of discrimination on those who have been too often subjected to such indignities. That's why we believe it is fair to open marriage to those who want to give a legal framework to strengthen their union.”

Last Sunday evening, France’s M-6 TV network’s "Zone Interdite" devoted the full program to the same-sex marriage bill. Segments showed lesbian couples visiting clinics in Belgium and in Spain for procreation assistance and artificial insemination. There was a feature on a world-renowned sperm bank in Denmark and another on agencies providing women prepared to carry a gay male couple’s child in the United States, Canada, and Ukraine. Finally, the report concluded that all these activities in France were illegal, punishable by jail sentences or fines into the tens of thousands of Euros.

President Hollande’s campaign slogan was “Change Is Now.” Change is what gay couples have been expecting for more than eight months. Equally, their children. Because if there is at least one argument those opposed to gay marriage and adoption cannot contest—that this law will offer a legislative framework to legalize the already existing and precarious situation of young people raised by two same-sex parents, but with only a single legal guardian.

 

*****

Marie Demarque is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

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