A gay pride march in Toulouse, France. The placard quotes Brigitte Barèges, a member of the French National Assembly who sparked controversy for her comments on same-sex marriage: "Why not let people get married to animals too?"
France exists in the American imagination mostly in caricatured form. On matters of sex, in particular, the French are thought of as being ahead of the curve, transcending the bounds of traditional morality—a perception shared by American progressives, who admire them for being liberated, and by conservatives, who consider them amoral libertines.
It may therefore come as a surprise that on matters of gay marriage and the full legal recognition of gay couples, France has lagged behind both the United States, where nine states recognize same-sex marriage, and a number of other European countries. But this is about to change: A few days ago, the French cabinet approved a draft bill on the legalization of gay marriage and adoption in accordance with the pre-election pledges of socialist president François Hollande. If passed, the bill, which is due for debate in parliament in late January, will make France the ninth country in Europe and the seventh in the European Union to recognize gay marriage.
In great part, the relative delay has to do with the balance of political power in the country over the last decade. Between 2002 and 2012, conservatives had full control of national legislature and executive.. Jacques Chirac, an old-school Gaullist conservative who was president between 1995 and 2007, was succeeded by Nicolas Sarkozy, also of the Gaullist Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). In the National Assembly, the UMP won absolute majorities both in 2002 and 2007. The ascendancy of the right had more to do with economic globalization and concerns about law and order, which the Socialists had failed to respond to, than with cultural issues, but their presence impeded progress on issues like same-sex marriage nonetheless.
Before the decade of conservative dominance, the Socialist government of prime minister Lionel Jospin had passed the country’s PACS law in 1999, allowing civil unions between unmarried, including gay, couples. The law gave pacsé—as they are officially called—couples some of the rights conferred by marriage, like that of filing a joint income-tax statement, but not all. In particular, inheritance and parenting rights were withheld. Even so, figures of the Christian Democratic right like member of parliament and later minister Christine Boutin, and even president Chiraq, attacked the law as undermining family values. Boutin had gone as far as brandishing a Bible in parliament in support of his views, something that raised eyebrows in secular-minded France.
The following years were marked by halting progress on the subject. Meanwhile, though, public opinion was moving steadily in the direction of recognizing same-sex unions. This can be seen in polling through the years: an Ifop poll conducted in 1996 found that only 48 percent of respondents were in favor of same-sex marriage. Eight years later, an Ipsos poll found 57 percent support for marriage and 40 percent in favor of adoption rights for gay couples. More recently, an Ifop poll in June 2011 counted 63 percent in favor of gay marriage, and 58 percent supporting adoption rights.
Given this evolution, Hollande saw a chance to marry principle and expediency and loudly proclaimed his intention to legalize same-sex marriage if he was elected president. For his part Sarkozy, the beleaguered incumbent, who in 2007 had promised gay voters a civil-union contract almost indistinguishable from marriage (but without abortion rights), had moved away from his more progressive self, and talked instead about not “clouding the image of such an important social institution.” Hollande won the presidency in May, and the Socialist party recaptured the majority in the National Assembly in June.
Is the French LGBT community in celebratory mood, then, in the aftermath of the new government’s proposal? Not quite. The text of the bill, as published by Le Monde a few weeks ago, does not include adoption rights for unmarried gay couples. Also missing is something LGBT activists consider crucial.
“We had […] been promised medically assisted procreation,” Judith Silberfeld, editor of LGBT magazine Yagg, told the television network France 24 in September. She was referring to in-vitro fertilization and other methods of assisted reproduction that are available to heterosexual couples and access to which the Socialists had promised the gay community before the elections. Medically assisted procreation, or MAP, as it is known, is absent from the draft bill. Left-wing MPs have vowed to try to amend it to change that. If it is passed, it will take France to the progressive vanguard of gay rights legislation, far beyond anything that is within the realm of possibility in the US.
On the other hand, conservatives, in particular those of a religious bent, are gearing up for a long campaign against the reform. In August, the French Catholic Church held a national prayer for France, an old custom which had fallen into disuse since World War II. In an unusual move for French bishops, who are not in the habit of diving into the political fray, the prayer, recited in churches across the country, appealed to newly elected officials "so that their sense of the common good will overcome special demands." On gay adoption, it said children should "cease to be objects of the desires and conflicts of adults and fully benefit from the love of a father and a mother." A few days ago, the head of the French Council of Bishops, Andre Vingt-Trois, called gay marriage “the ultimate deceit.”
In recent weeks, opposition to the government’s plans is growing. Over a 1,000 mayors have signed a petition against the measure and there have been protest rallies against it in 75 towns and cities. A number of mayors of areas of Paris have said they will refuse to carry out same-sex ceremonies. One of the Paris mayors, the UMP’s François Lebel, wrote in a municipal newspaper that gay marriage will open the door to incest and polygamy.
The long-term trends favor gay rights activists. Catholic influence has been on the wane in the country, to the point where, as Tracy McNicoll mentioned in the Daily Beast, the proportion of the population who are practicing Catholics is smaller than those who identify themselves as gay or bisexual. Nevertheless, president Hollande’s popularity has been fading fast since his election because of France’s continuing economic malaise, and support for same-sex marriage and adoption has dropped off somewhat compared to its 2011 peak.
It should be an interesting few months.