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The French Debate on Rights

Gay About Marriage

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Marriage is such a testy issue at the best of times, an institution that has been both sacralised and demonised in equal measure for the millennia that humans have formalised it.  The galvanised opposition to same-sex marriage in France wasn’t enough to derail the train of change on Tuesday, with the lower house voting to legalise it by 331-225.  There was also the negligible number of 10 abstentions.

The bill itself had the effect of extending marriage rights to same-sex couples and allowing them to adopt children. But for students who have been keeping an eye on the subject, it entails something far more – certainly more than a legal act.  Gender theory has come banging at the door wanting to be let in; new cultures, as Bruno Perreau of MIT suggests, are forming.

The chamber itself featured some drama, which was to be expected with matters regarding le marriage pour tous – a protester who attempted to unfurl a banner, speeches by various representatives urging gay teenagers to ignore homophobic undercurrents.  Justice Minister Christiane Taubira reiterated her point that this was not an issue of “gay marriage” but “marriage for all”.  “We believe that the first weddings will be beautiful and that they’ll bring a breeze of joy, and that those who are opposed to them today will surely be confounded when they are overcome with the happiness of the newlyweds and the families.”  Equality, not distinction, had to be stressed.

Opponents, on the other hand, were colourful in their variety of opposition.  Those of the far right insisted that such measures effectively sanctioned killing children, bestiality and potential marriage to objects.  Skin heads are on the march.  MPs in favour of the bill have received death threats.

The battle has been ferocious. The French are not protesting in their hundreds of thousands about imperialism lite in Mali, or intrusive counter-terrorism measures.  This issue has been deemed of another order.  Riot police have been kept on standby, overseeing the largest demonstrations under François Hollande’s presidency. The anti-same sexers have found their voice through the comic spokeswoman Frigide Barjot, a humourist who has been clamouring for a referendum in place of the bill.  In early January, protesters numbering a million descended on Paris, somewhat incongruously, in a sea of pink.

Complexity emerges when looking at the French approach to matters secular and religious. How that pans out in the marriage business is also significant.  Private choices are generally lauded; leaders are entitled considerable leeway in terms of whether they even marry or not (the current President not being married to either his partner, current and previous). Only 6 per cent of the French, according to a poll run in The Economist (Feb 2), attend church every week.  In 1961, the figure was 35 per cent.

When it comes to matters of same-sex marriage, there might be a strong majority – at least according to a YouGov poll (59 per cent) in favour – but the approval of adoption policies lies at 40 per cent.  When the Civil Solidary Pact of 1999 became law, it created a civil-union arrangement that allowed shared health benefits and a simplified inheritance regime while stopping short of allowing adoption.

The Conservatives, as one might expect, are generally against bill – Jean-François Copé of the UMP party, and his rival François Fillon have found common ground on the issue. They find much irritation in the embrace of what they consider soft issues, distracting the electorate from the economic headaches France finds itself in.

Generally speaking, French debate on gay marriage was not so much an issue of conservatives but conservatism of the left.  France’s political classes, as Christopher Caldwell suggested in the New York Times (Jun 24, 2004), tend “to argue for the most conservative possible policies using the most liberal possible rhetoric and examples.”  Opposition to marriage, not merely as an idea, but as a compact of middle class stupidity that should not be extended to same-sex couples, has certainly been at the forefront of those such as novelist Benoît Duteurtre.  Do gay couples, goes the subtext here, have to be as folly driven as their bourgeois heterosexual counterparts?

Holding the fort of such left-conservatism is Lionel Jospin, who was instrumental behind the Civil Solidarity Pact.  His philosopher wife Sylviane Agacinski is of the same view, feeling that the chat about rights and equality ignores the fundamental biology behind procreation.  Such biological determinism entails that adoption rights should not be passed for single-sex couples.

The opponents of the bill, which will become law on Hollande’s signature, promise to continue their firm and vocal resistance.  Rallies are planned for May 5 and May 26.  The bill may well become law by way of signature, but the challenges, legal and social, are bristling.  Conservatives have promised to take the law to France’s constitutional council.

With all that tumult, France has certainly moved on from the time Stéphane Chapin and his long standing partner Bertrand Charpentier held a “wedding” ceremony in Bègles with the almost Hollywood blessing of its mayor, Noël Mamère.  Never mind that Chapin and Charpentier did not live there, or that the couple sold the story to weekly magazine VSD for 5000 euros.  “Illegal comportment” has duly vanished, though that thorny question of French intellectual life remains: should rights be based on difference or sameness?

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com