Aggressively secular, but also bound in Catholic tradition, the French Republic has been, since the formal separation of church and state in 1905, a great contradiction. A kind of wilfull blindness, at least to this outsider from a country that has not known disestablishmentarianism, pervades amongst the political class and people in general. Nowhere is this contradiction more apparent than in the debate regarding extending the possibility of civil marriage to couples of the same sex.
French discourse on this subject seems stubbornly stuck in the 1980s – the press speaks frequently of “homosexual marriage“, expressing surprise that such a debate has come on so quickly after the concept of gay people living together as a couple was seemingly invented in 1999 by the law creating the Pacs (a sort of civil contract that gives certain rights and protections to couples regardless of gender) and reminds readers darkly that adoption rights are on the table too. This is perhaps due to a lack of development of the public discourse on gay rights, which might stem partly from general homophobia, but also from a widespread French aversion to talking about people’s private lives and sexual moeurs. That the first part impacts the debate is unquestionable, and can be seen in the National Front’s attitude towards gays in general, coloured as it is by its fascist philosophies, the Catholic Church’s hypocritical prayer for “families” this 15th August – part of a wider campaign against the extension of marriage, and the odd distinction made by some on the right that marriage might be OK, but adoption is a step to far (which presumably can be explained by the revolting amalgamation of homosexuality with pedophilia in the minds of some). The second part of those objections of course miss the point that marriage is currently a public (and, yes, secular) institution that flaunts the heterosexuality of the participants, and is indeed widely celebrated for that very fact.
But now is a time for progress. Latest polls show around 65% of French people in favour of extending marriage to same-sex couples. The outlyers are looking evermore retrograde: Marine Le Pen talks of opening the door to polygamy ; Christine Boutin, who vehemently opposed even the Pacs, but has softened her stance in recent years, talks of having a national referendum on the issue; moderates in the UMP often dodge the subject entirely and state that they are in favour of a “debate” on the subject (acutely aware it would seem that the knuckle-draggers within their own party form a sizeable chunk of the membership and can affect their political careers whilst in opposition more than they would like to admit publicly).
The debate has already happened it would seem, although it went by in the blink of an eye. François Hollande included a pledge to extend marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples in his manifesto. Nicolas Sarkozy, obligingly, declared that he was not in favour of such reforms, after having considered the issue “thoroughly“. That there was little or no discussion of these two positions in the election campaign (apart from several half-hearted minutes in the debate between the candidates and a few awkward questions to Sarkozy’s surrogates, all of whom squirmed and failed to provide a coherent answer as to why reform in all areas of life was good, but bad in this case) is not surprising: it is widely known that cosmopolitan Mr Sarkozy was broadly in favour of the measure. His discomfort in having to declare that he opposed “gay marriage” and adoption rights in the debate was telling; he simply could not take any other position without losing the Catholic right of his party. And so Hollande was able to portray himself as the liberal, modern man, whilst Sarkozy was branded the homme du passé – a painful situation for a man who prides himself on his modernity. The French slumbered throughout the issue, seeing it as largely inevitable whatever the outcome of the election. The French gay community was somewhat disbelieving (and still is) that marriage equality was on the cards, but votes for the left overwhelmingly anyway.
The reforms are planned for early next year. The debate until then will probably get nastier and there are likely to be some histrionics during the parliamentary sessions. The issue in secular France continues however to demonstrate the sway of religious dogma over social issues in what still is a deceptively conservative country.