Just as American gay marriage advocates enjoyed “the single biggest night for gay rights in electoral history”—scoring milestone victories in ballot initiatives and reelecting a pro-gay marriage president in Barack Obama—France is hotly debating its own brand new “Marriage for All” plan. In Paris on Wednesday, the French cabinet approved a draft bill to allow homosexual couples to marry and adopt children as early as 2013. The controversial bill marks President François Hollande’s first major societal reform. “Progress not just for a few but for all of society,” he said Wednesday.
For years, a majority of French people surveyed have expressed support for gay marriage, and the reform makes good on an explicit Hollande campaign promise, duly inscribed in a platform that saw him elected only six months ago. But that hasn’t stopped the fight in France from turning ugly.
In recent weeks, religious leaders have joined members of the political opposition in virulent condemnation of Hollande’s gay marriage pitch. Rivals have smelled blood, as the president has struggled with critiques of his leadership from allies and foes alike. Detractors have charged that solving the economic crisis should top the president’s to-do list, not planning gay weddings. With unemployment high and rising, Hollande’s grim approval ratings have plummeted as low as the mid-30 percent range.
In the pilgrimage town of Lourdes last weekend, Archbishop of Paris André Vingt-Trois called the initiative “a trick,” as it does away, he argued, with “the recognition of sexual difference.” The Catholic cardinal said the initiative “would shake the foundations of our society,” earning a hail of insults from gay marriage supporters. (Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly that stirred controversy in September with lewd caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, was typically crudest, depicting the Christian trinity in a graphic ménage-à-trois cartoon on its cover this week.)
France is historically Catholic, with 64 percent identifying as such in a 2009 poll. But only 4.5 percent identify as practicing Catholics—fewer, as it happens, than the French population identifying as gay or bisexual (6.5 percent). Still, in a nation fervently attached to the separation of church and state, the archbishop’s unusually intense incursion was enough to dominate headlines.
Some opposition politicians, including far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, have called for a referendum to decide the matter. Mayors hostile to the prospect of marrying two men or two women in town halls across the country have launched a petition asking for exceptions of conscience. Last month, François Lebel, the mayor of the Paris district that includes the Champs Elysées and the Elysée Palace, where he married former President Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni in 2008, controversially wrote against Marriage for All in a municipal newspaper, “Why then would the legal age for marriage be maintained? And why forbid marriage between close relations, pedophilia, or incest which are all still common currency in the world.”
Heavyweights in Lebel’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP in French), the party that led France for 10 years before Sarkozy lost his bid for a second term in May, have variously asked that the bill be pulled or, like former Prime Minister François Fillon, have promised to repeal it at their next opportunity. One key former Sarkozy cabinet minister responded in the affirmative when she was asked whether gay couples who will have married legally by then could be “de-married” when her party returns to power.
“The population isn’t renewing itself, what sense does this make? We want a country of gays? Well, then, in 10 years there’ll be no one left, so it’s stupid,” UMP Senator Serge Dassault told a France Culture radio reporter. At 87, Dassault’s stance might not be surprising demographically, but his influence isn’t negligible; the patriarch of the Dassault family is 93rd on Forbes’s global billionaires list and heads a vast fortune. He owns Le Figaro, France’s top right-of-center daily newspaper, and Dassault Aviation, which makes France’s fighter jets. In his radio remarks, Dassault blamed homosexuality for the “total decadence” of Greece and concluded it posed “an enormous danger to the entirety of our nation.” (It is presumed he was referring to ancient Greece. The decadence of contemporary Greece, overwhelmed by debt, isn’t gay people’s fault, apparently.)
As a matter of fact, France already allows a form of civil union, known as the PACS or civil solidarity pact. It passed despite similar bluster in 1999, during France’s last stretch of Socialist rule. But PACS unions don’t confer the same rights or responsibilities as marriage does—for instance, on inheritance, on the right to adopt a partner’s child or even surname—hence the demand for the new draft bill.
Ironically, while PACS unions were primarily intended for gay couples, they were massively embraced by heterosexuals; today, 95 percent of PACS unions are contracted between a man and a woman. Another collateral effect, observers argue, was to accelerate the acceptance of homosexuality in France. An IFOP poll published Wednesday in Le Monde showed support for the statement that homosexuality is “a means like any other to experience one’s sexuality” was 54 percent in 1986, 67 percent in 1996, and 87 percent this year.
But polls have been a source of turmoil in the bitter debate over François Hollande’s gay marriage pledge. Support for gay marriage and adoption by homosexual couples seemed to peak in 2011—as Hollande mounted his presidential bid—before suddenly sliding this year. BVA, a polling firm, found 63 percent of French people surveyed were in favor of gay marriage in 2011, up 15 points from 2000; meanwhile, support for adoption for gay couples rose to 56 percent last year, way up from only 28 percent in 1998. But approval has dropped enough recently to raise eyebrows; a BVA poll released this month shows gay marriage down five points. Gay adoption is down six points, to a fence-sitting 50 percent.
Some of the sudden turn could be due to the prospect of gay marriage becoming more concrete with Hollande’s election. But a closer look suggests another explanation: bad timing, although not solely because the grim economy deserves undivided attention. In fact, with a tough opposition leadership fight into its very last days—the UMP votes to pick a new leader on Nov. 18—discourse on a range of hot-button topics like Islam has appeared to radicalize in recent weeks as blocs of right-wingers clash ostentatiously for control of the party. (It bears noting that nearly 80 percent of practicing Catholics voted unsuccessfully to reelect Sarkozy back in May.) The result may be a perfect storm of dissent just as Hollande’s first signature progressive reform is tabled.
Indeed, most of the sudden drop in French support appears to be due to a change of heart by right-wingers. Over the past year, according to BVA, support for gay marriage and adoption has each dipped a full 20 points among right-wing voters. Another pollster, IFOP, shows that backing—between August and October alone—among right-wing sympathizers dipped 10 and 17 points, respectively. Some observers expect the virulence of the opposition to gay marriage to cool accordingly after the UMP leadership convention. In that context, pledges to someday repeal the law, or even to de-marry gay couples five or 10 years on, comes off as mere rabble-rousing, a short-term play for quick votes. French media this week have outlined the trouble encountered by similar repeal attempts elsewhere, pointing to the overturning of California’s Prop 8 and a Madrid court’s decision Tuesday to uphold gay marriage, despite a challenge from the party now ruling Spain. Parliamentary debate in France over the Marriage for All bill was initially scheduled to start in December; it has perhaps wisely been delayed to Jan. 29.
Still, the bill is due to face another sort of challenge from those who feel it doesn’t go far enough. Advocacy groups protest that it doesn’t give gay couples access to medically assisted procreation, limited for now to heterosexual couples (not necessarily married, unlike the rule for French adoptions, but no singletons) and conditioned on medical grounds. In practice, French lesbians have crossed the border to Spain or Belgium for such treatment. But advocates feel leaving it out of the draft bill perpetuates gay discrimination. Government officials suggest it will appear instead in a future bill on family issues. But Socialist parliamentarians have promised to table an amendment to get it passed sooner rather than later, while the majority Socialists enjoy a rare window without midterm election pressure until 2014.
In the end, Hollande—who, ironically, has never been married—may well come out on top. Gay marriage in France could ultimately give him progressivist credibility with leftists disillusioned over his economic policies, without irking conservatives who might not be as principally opposed as current numbers suggest. All of which is to say, expect a bevy of invites to rainbow weddings in the south of France next summer.