Anti-gay marriage demonstration, Paris, March 24 2013 (photo: Thomas Samson/AFP)
This is my first post on the French gay marriage controversy—which is settled, it’s done and finished الحمد لله—and likely my last. I stayed away from the issue and generally avoided discussing it, as I was somewhat conflicted and it’s admittedly not an issue at the center of my preoccupations. I’m all for civil unions and strongly supported the PACS when it was enacted back in ’99 but wasn’t sure about gays marrying au même titre as heteros or, above all, adopting children—though having read some of the well-considered arguments for and against the mariage pour tous law I finally came down for it. I also felt that President Hollande was wasting time on what was mainly a symbolic issue (as the number of people directly concerned by it is very small); on this I agreed with Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who regretted that Hollande was distracting himself with secondary issues such as the mariage pour tous when there were, objectively speaking, far more important matters at hand and of much greater concern to French people in their majority (i.e. the economy and unemployment).
I have found a couple of aspects of the controversy interesting. One was the opposition to the mariage pour tous of a not insignificant minority of people on the left—including in my personal entourage, and younger as well as older—, which I cannot imagine in the US (the virulence of my numerous lefty American friends—personal and FB—on the gay marriage issue is striking, plus students who are not necessarily on the left). It reminds me of the Islamic headscarf issue and the 2004 French law; American liberals and leftists almost unanimously disapprove of the law when it comes up in discussion and are surprised, even stunned, to hear French leftists strongly defend it (I’m recounting personal experience here).
À propos, David A. Bell of Princeton University has a good article on the Foreign Affairs website, “Liberté, Égalité, but Not Homosexualité: Why French Feminists Are Fighting Gay Marriage,” on the opposition in France to the law and how the arguments differ from those in America. It begins
The only thing clear right now about the U.S. Supreme Court’s pending decision on the Defense of Marriage Act — the law that bars the federal government’s recognition of same-sex marriages — is that Americans will read the verdict as the latest salvo in a long-running culture war. But it is worth remembering that this is a culture war that is increasingly being fought internationally — and often in terms that do not line up with the debate in the United States. Americans have become accustomed to thinking of the argument against gay marriage as being motivated by religious conservatism. But that is not necessarily true elsewhere.
France offers an instructive example. Although 60 percent of the public supports gay marriage, the country has been beset by vitriolic protests since the National Assembly narrowly passed a marriage equality law last spring. From a distance, the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets may have seemed little different from the evangelical activists often seen at similar demonstrations in the United States. But Americans would be surprised to discover how different their motivations often are.
…opponents of marriage equality in France’s mainstream parties have mostly kept their distance from religious groups. Relatively few of the street protesters interviewed by reporters talk of God, wave the Bible, or have verses from Leviticus tattooed on their arms. (Which should come as no surprise, given that France is a largely secular place, where barely half the population even still identifies itself as Catholic and regular religious attendance does not even reach ten percent.) Indeed, the most prominent opposition has come from the ranks of professional groups such as law professors and psychoanalysts, whose U.S. counterparts generally favor marriage equality by large margins. A considerable number of public intellectuals have also expressed loud opposition to the law, including the essayist Alain Finkielkraut, the novelist Jean d’Ormesson, and the philosopher Sylviane Agacinski (the wife of former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin)…
…in truth, the extent of opposition to marriage equality has at least as much to do with the vexed and tortuous story of a quintessentially modern phenomenon: French feminism.
Americans often think of France as a country well disposed to feminism, thanks to the pioneering writings of Simone de Beauvoir and others. And the reputation is not without reason. Abortion has been legal in France since 1975, and French women enjoy paid maternity leave and subsidized child care. In June 2000, the French Parliament passed a law without parallel in the United States (although quickly watered it down) mandating that political parties designate women as half of all their candidates for elected office.
Feminist issues have also divided the French intellectual world, however, and the disputes have strongly influenced how the marriage equality issue has played out. An important current of French thought, which has no real American equivalent, has maintained that while women deserve equal rights, these rights must not entail the supposed erasure of sexual difference. Historians and philosophers such as Mona Ozouf and Philippe Raynaud have seen a particular threat in American-style protections against sexual harassment, which they have labeled “sexual Stalinism.” The sociologist Irène Théry has called for a féminisme à la française that acknowledges the “asymmetrical pleasures of seduction.” The philosopher Sylviane Agacinski goes so far as to call sexual difference the true basis for sexual equality in law. The “parity” in elections demanded by the 2000 law, in her view, reflected the natural division of the human race into complementary male and female halves. Other feminists countered that the law should pay no attention to gender beyond guaranteeing equal rights for all…
This strong emphasis on the complementary roles of men and women has had a remarkable effect on the French marriage debate. Unlike in the United States, most opponents of marriage equality have had relatively little to say about the morality of homosexual sex acts, or about threats to the “institution of marriage” in general. Instead, they speak above all about children, insisting that a psychologically healthy family life rests on the union of a man and woman. Back in 1999, when the French Parliament approved a form of civil union, much of the opposition centered on this issue.
This spring, precisely the same concerns have dominated the manifestos against “marriage for all” issued by groups of law professors and psychologists. And interviews with ordinary protesters have shown just how effectively the arguments of philosophers have filtered down to street level, with one figure after another explaining their opposition to the reform in the same way. To quote a popular protest banner: “Un père et une mère c’est élémentaire” (“A father and a mother is elementary”). And the 60 percent support for same-sex marriage has not changed the fact that a majority still favors banning child adoption by homosexual couples. In short, although religion and homophobia obviously fed into the recent protests, the rhetoric employed by the opposition has trickled down from the intellectuals (as one might, indeed, expect in France)…
A second aspect of the gay marriage controversy I found interesting was the significant number of young people who were involved in the social movement it spawned on the right and the massive street demonstrations that were organized (and demos not being a part of French right-wing culture). The April 18th Le Monde had an article on this, “Une génération de droite se construit contre le mariage gay.” The lede: “Pour beaucoup de jeunes manifestants, le mouvement est un acte fondateur.” Here are passages I underlined
Pour Carol [Ardent, candidat à l’agrégation de lettres, et responsable du blog Le Rouge et le Noir], si les jeunes sont si mobilisés, c’est d’abord parce que leur génération est touchée par les divorces des parents. «Beaucoup d’entre nous ont souffert de l’absence d’équilibre père-mère et nous sommes conscients des dégâts que cela peut causer.»
The (right-wing) demonstrators got a little taste of the French police and the way they go about their job
La violence ? Il faut la chercher du côté de la police : «J’ai vu des jeunes filles de 22 ans, tout au plus, menottées violemment alors qu’elles étaient inoffensives, raconte Louis-Joseph Gannat, devant l’Assemblée nationale. Il ne faudra pas s’étonner si le mouvement se radicalise après ça.»
Ha! So now right-wingers—some of them, at least—know what it’s like to be manhandled by the police and treated poorly, even when one hasn’t broken any law…
And then there’s this, from a 22-year old law student, who denounces
une atmosphère «cathophobe» et affirme avoir perdu beaucoup d’amis «qui ne sont pas ouverts au dialogue» depuis son engagement tardif, en janvier.
Un sentiment revient en boucle : les jeunes opposants au mariage pour tous n’acceptent pas de voir leur engagement «caricaturé», réduit à une démarche violente et homophobe par les politiques et les journalistes. «On nous dénigre, estime Clémence Grosjean, jeune professeure d’histoire-géographie. Il y a un ras-le-bol de ne pas être pris au sérieux. On nous a traités de fascistes mais je n’ai pas envie de mettre fin à la République ou à la démocratie !»
A “cathophobe”—i.e. anti-Catholic—atmosphere. Earlier this year a student (French, bright) in one of my Master’s courses spoke emphatically during a class discussion—on the culture of French laïcité—of what he considered to be a strong anti-Catholic sentiment in France, with practicing Catholics being stigmatized. He said that this was even true for students in private Catholic schools, with those who opt to take catechism—an elective class in schools sous contrat—being made fun of by their peers. He was seconded by a couple of other students, one an Italian, who recounted his own story of what he felt was a prevailing anti-Catholicism in France. Very interesting. As I tend not to frequent regular church-going people (or regular mosque or temple-going), I had no idea.
The Le Monde article concludes with a quote from a student about how the anti-mariage pour tous movement has forged a new generation of activists on the right, in much the same way as the anti-CPE movement did for young people on the left (and the anti-FN movement of the 1990s). One thing is for sure: the right in France is more mobilized these days than is the left. And will likely continue to be in the coming two or three years.
UPDATE: Richard Posner has a good essay in TNR on “How gay marriage became legitimate.” (July 24)
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