After six months of fervent debate, dueling mass protests, incendiary threats, and ugly reprisals, France is now officially poised to become the ninth nation in Europe, and 14th in the world, to allow gay couples to marry. The so-called Marriage for All bill, French President François Hollande's first major social reform, passed Tuesday in a final vote in Paris: 331 in favor, 225 against. Legislators supporting the bill stood up, chanting “Egalité! Egalité!” over rhythmic applause, not least for the woman of the hour, Christiane Taubira, the justice minister who carried the project. The new legislation will also allow same-sex couples to adopt. France’s first gay nuptials are expected in June.
Opponents insist the fight won’t stop now. The opposition Union for a Popular Movement quickly tabled a challenge on constitutional grounds, which authorities have a month to rule on. Some political rivals have pledged to repeal the law if elected in 2017. And protest organizers, insisting there is still time to change Hollande's mind before he signs the bill into law, are touting massive new demonstrations May 5 and 26. Hardline agitators clashed with police in Paris on Tuesday night. Indeed, the fight’s uglier elements did not let up down the stretch. A young gay man was assaulted outside a nightclub in Nice last weekend, after recent similar incidents in Paris, Lille, and Bordeaux; proponents of the bill have accused its critics of spurring violence by trivializing homophobia. On Monday, the Speaker of the House received a threatening letter reportedly containing gunpowder and the chilling phrase, “Our methods are more radical and expeditious than the demos. You wanted war, you have it.”
Holding fast against the most zealous critics and making good on a 2012 campaign promise, Marriage for All counts as a rare feather in the deeply unpopular Hollande's battered cap, just as the Socialist president's approval ratings dip to record lows. But history may well exalt another key figure. Over nearly 200 hours of parliamentary debate since January that stretched until dawn in some cases, Justice Minister Taubira was a revelation. Applauded for her lyrical speeches, sans notes, brimming with literary references, the diminutive minister was even gamely forgiven three laughing fits.
Taubira, 61, a divorced mother of four, is the highest-ranking woman in France's first gender-balanced government and a rare black figure on the national political stage. She was a controversial pick last spring for justice minister. A leftist lower-house backbencher for 19 years, the first-time cabinet minister was slagged for having subscribed to the independence movement during her youth in French Guiana, a French territory that borders Brazil and Suriname. Far-right spitfire Marine Le Pen complained to Le Monde that Taubira was "totally incapable of fighting the explosion of anti-white and anti-French racism that is wreaking havoc in the banlieues." Right-wing politicians tsked that she would be lax, a mollycoddle—an accusation inadvertently served during her first official ministerial outing, a basketball tournament between prisoners and guards, when one prisoner escaped.
Before being named justice minister, Taubira had two claims to fame, each dating back a decade. First, in 2001, she drafted historic legislation, popularly known as the Taubira Law, which recognized the slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity.
The following year, Taubira ran for president, one of 16 candidates in a crowded field in the French tradition of marginal bids using the first-round ballot to have their ideas heard. She finished 13th, with 2.32 percent of the vote. But the fateful circumstances of that landmark 2002 election made Taubira more than a mere also-ran. Far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the nation when he made it into the presidential run-off, beating the sitting Socialist prime minister by just 0.68 percent. Some leftists made Taubira the scapegoat, saddled for years with the charge of being a vote splitter, Ralph Nader–style.
Ironically, her 2001 achievement, and her unique background, would give Taubira the chops to carry the Marriage for All bill to law—an exploit that may finally have persuaded Socialists to forgive her that 2002 indignity. Responding to an opposition legislator February 5 on the floor of the National Assembly, Taubira recited impassioned poetry by heart.
She cited “Black-Label” by Léon-Gontran Damas, a founding father of the Negritude cultural movement, and a native, like Taubira, of Cayenne, French Guiana. “We the wretched, we the worthless, we the nothings, we the dogs, we the skeletons, we the Negros, what are we waiting for? What are we waiting for, to play the fools, to piss on this life, stupid and beastly, that is imposed upon us?” she asked with evocative cadence. “Not according equality, not recognizing liberty, is the same as saying to the French people, ‘What are you waiting for to play the fools against this stupid and beastly life that is imposed upon you?’” For posterity, the parliamentary minutes record “lively applause” from left-wing backbenchers.
Taubira’s parliamentary repartee became the stuff of greatest-hits compilations on YouTube, excerpting C-SPAN-style clips. She inspired a F**k Yeah Christiane Taubira Tumblr page and the monicker “Taubiramania.” One fan took up a collection online for a Valentine's Day bouquet of roses to thank her; expecting £500, he raised over £12,000 from 2,000 donors (the surplus, after flowers, went to two gay-rights groups). On Tuesday evening, in the heart of Paris’s emblematically gay Marais quarter, one woman celebrating the vote held a sign in rainbow colors up to a TV camera. An apparent proposal to the heroine of the hour: “Christiane, now that we can, will you say yes?”
Indeed, France’s gay-marriage battle produced a motley collection of charismatic leaders—mainly women, as it happens—on both sides.
The eccentric comedian and self-styled “hip Catholic” Frigide Barjot, 50, led the anti–gay marriage charge as the face of the Manif Pour Tous movement (“Demo for All,” a play on Marriage for All). She helped organize a series of mass protests that drew hundreds of thousands into the streets under flags depicting nuclear-family silhouettes in pink and blue. “Hollande wants blood, he'll get it!” she ranted shortly after the Senate passed the bill on April 12. “Everyone is furious. We live in a dictatorship,” she said, calling the majority’s decision to move up the bill’s final vote by several weeks an attempt to “guillotine” her movement.
Barjot (a stage name) was in the public gallery for Tuesday’s vote and will lead the new demos in May. The suggestion she might carry her momentum into votes for Manif Pour Tous candidates in nationwide municipal elections next year has spurred comparisons to the Tea Party movement in the United States. For now, Barjot is stumping for a referendum on gay marriage and for a so-called civil alliance instead, with wider reach than France’s existing civil unions.
For her part, Christine Boutin, 69, a fervent Catholic right-winger, was already in the spotlight in 1999 for her feverish opposition to that civil-union law. A former cabinet minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, the head of the small Christian Democrat Party was again a magnet for media in the battle against the new bill. On Twitter, she warned of “civil war” in the wake of growing anger over gay marriage. And she likened outing the names of senators who voted against party lines to the yellow Stars of David the Nazis forced Jews to wear. An image of Boutin passed out on a sidewalk overcome, she would claim, by police tear gas during a rally became an Internet meme when proponents made their own parodies. After Tuesday’s vote, Boutin told the BFMtv newschannel, “Society will collapse.”
With a few last lyrical flourishes before Tuesday's vote, Taubira brushed aside all those critics. “We think the first weddings will be beautiful. And that they will bring a breeze of joy,” she said before the National Assembly. “And those who contest them today will surely be confused when they are overwhelmed by the newlyweds’ happiness and the families’ joy.”
And at last with the ballots cast and counted, “overcome with emotion,” the justice minister reserved her closing remarks to reassure any gay teens shaken by the debate’s bitter tone. “If you are stricken with despair, sweep away these words that will fly away. Stay with us, hold your head high, you have nothing to be ashamed of!” Taubira’s new fans might well return the sentiment.