“La Manif pour Tous” (the Demo for All) was without a doubt a massive success in terms of communication and numbers. Whilst the police may claim that 340,000 people marched on Sunday in Paris, crowding the Champ de Mars in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, those organising the march claim closer to 900,000. Le Figaro, in its most mouth-frothing headline of the year so far claimed “without a doubt” 800,000 (before the march had even finished). However many were there, the march has left a mark on the tone of the public debate that has shifted in the days since. What now for equal marriage in France?I have written previously that the debate in France has become confused and multifaceted in light of a surprisingly Catholic fervour that many in the country thought long gone. Whilst the Catholic Church kept a low profile on Sunday, it was instrumental in its organisation, right down to a former senior Military man who had, prior to his retirement, organised the national military demonstrations on July 14th, organising the logistics for the day. It is hardly surprising too, with the money behind various obscure groups taking part, that so many could be bussed and trained in to Paris for the day.
Whilst Frigide Barjot, the charismatic, apparently homo-friendly, spokesperson for Sunday’s march, can claim a victory, the debate has shifted away from the clamour that children’s rights are being overridden by selfish homosexuals (usually, in the discourse, men) who will then lie to their children about how they came into being, towards an unacceptable ignorance of the public mood and referendum on the subject.
Won’t somone think of the children?
It was remarkably perspicacious of The Simpsons to attribute this famous catchphrase to the wife of Reverend Lovejoy. “Thinking of the children” became the staple response to any suggestion. In the debates held on a seemingly continuous basis on television, radio and the Internet, the anti-marriage equality lobby has used the claim that children’s rights are at stake as a scare tactic. It is working too, if we are to believe the latest polls. Claiming that a man and a woman are the winning combination to structure a family seems like common sense, except when the argument is taken to its logical next step, which would surely be to require married couples with children to stay together, single parents to marry quick-sharp the father or mother of their children, regardless of whether that individual beats them, single people not to adopt and, of course, homosexual couples not be able to provide legal security for their children in the event of a separation or death of one of the parents. Strangely enough, divorce has been absent from the discussion of those harmful effects for children. Perhaps because leading figures on the right are divorced (sometimes several times).
At the heart of the argument is of course the idea that homosexual couples might in some way be harmful to the interests of their own children – and you don’t have to go far in the voxpops taken on the streets of Paris on Sunday before mentions were made of Nazism, incest, pedophilia and the apparent inherent instability of those gays who just can’t stop shagging everything that moves.
Ideals and Reality
France appears therefore to be operating under a great collective fantasy: that families are by and large based on a man, his (first) wife, and their children. If that were the case, it would be understandable. And yet single parents who are unmarried to their partners, couples with step-parents and step-children and families where the parents are the same sex but only one parent is genetically related to the child are lost in legal uncertainty in a country that has failed to allow its Family Law to adapt to the way families live. Whilst it is possible to create legal links and protections in all of these situations relying on various statutes and not an inconsiderate amount of private law contracts at great expense, this burden is spared married couples who achieve the same protection in a block on the day of their wedding. That is principally one of the benefits of getting married – this legal certainty – and married couples value this legal security. If this security, for the parents and the children, is not to be extended to all types of couple, the result will only be coercive. The answer appears, by the “antis” to force a model on to society – a debate that one might have thought society had in the 1960s and moved on from.
The Dangerous Seduction
Now the debate has moved on to the clamour for a referendum by the antis, who claim that the government is ignoring the call of the people from the streets. Whilst the political parties of the right have often pointed out that the country cannot be ruled by the street, now they claim the government is tone-deaf.
Would a referendum be the answer, after all, surely it is never a bad thing to ask people what they think?
A number of technical problems arrive, of course, firstly because article 11 of the French Constitution would appear to prohibit “societal” questions being part of a referendum. Secondly, the answer provided by the people is never that to the question, because, as General de Gaulle found to his cost, the referendum becomes one on the person who asks the question: in this current climate, an anti-Hollande vote is a real risk, telling us nothing of the attitude of the people. Current polls do of course suggest that there is still a firm majority of people in favour of marriage, however there is some suspicion of adoption.
The real issue against holding a referendum on the question of equal marriage, and why I look at the public votes in the US as a rather squalid affair, is that this issue is fundamentally a question of human rights for gay couples, and that a civilised society does not hold plebicites on who gets them and who doesn’t. There were no referendums on voting rights for women, racial segregation, abolishing the death penalty and therefore why should gay couples and their children have their rights determined by a still suspicious majority? Constitutions and human rights are designed to prevent the majority from removing their rights, however democratically the process is dressed.
Is Equality the Answer?
France’s pro-marriage equality lobby has used the argument of “equality” as the driving force behind its argument. This complex argument is deeply bound in France’s identity as the creator of the philosophical ideas behind human rights law, with the fundamental text applied in France in this matter still being the 1789 declaration. This is the approach taken by the US activists in the first big public debates in 2008 on this question, without great success. Instead, in 2012 their arguments focused on specific individual cases where the lack of legal security caused heart-rendering tragedies, where the surviving member of couple is locked out of the home they made together or children and taken into care.
Perhaps, instead of getting lost in the philosophy of the subject, even in a country that teaches philosophy in school, those fighting for marriage equality should focus on the concrete benefits of providing for a framework that supports the reality of society: sensible rules that ensure that families are not broken up in times of hardship because they are the wrong sex.