France took a big step toward balancing the rights of homosexuals and heterosexuals on Feb. 12, when the leftist-controlled Assemblée Nationale passed draft law legalizing marriage and adoption for same-sex couples. The legislation, adopted by a vote of 329 to 229, now heads to the left-dominated upper house of Parliament for expected final passage in April. From there, the so-called Marriage for All bill will undergo routine legal and constitutional vetting before going into force as French law — probably later in spring.
Though first-phase passage of the text was virtually certain, the vote was nevertheless significant for numerous reasons. Politically, it was the first major social reform presented by Socialist President François Hollande — whose promise to legalize same-sex marriage was one of his central campaign planks. Meantime, it saw socially liberal France finally embrace marriage and family rights for same-sex couples that many countries adopted long ago, including some considered more conservative. And after several embarrassing policy setbacks — like the constitutional incompatibility of Hollande’s planned 75% tax rate on incomes exceeding €1 million ($1.3 million) — the resounding lower-house approval of Marriage for All sent the French public the not altogether common image of Parliament’s leftist majority marching in lock step with Hollande’s often more cautious Cabinet to put policy into place.
“This law is in line with a long series of republican reforms for equality and against discrimination,” said Socialist Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault as legislators prepared to vote. “Contrary to what those who rail against it say — and fortunately they’re in the minority — this law is going to strengthen the institution of marriage.”
Despite the large margin of victory, bringing the text to vote was a laborious affair — and the fight over Marriage for All won’t be over even once the law is enacted. The legislation remains an issue of contention — even among people who back it — and widened the split within French society over same-sex marriage and adoption rights.
A Feb. 8 Ifop survey for French news site Atlantico.fr found 66% of respondents supporting same-sex marriage — a level of public approval generally reflected in previous polls on the topic. By contrast, the Atlantico.fr study found only 47% of French people backing adoption rights for same-sex couples — down from 52% in Oct. 2012. In general, sociologists say, the majority of French people view equal rights for same sex couples as being both logical and over due, but start expressing more doubts when parenting and child-raising issues are factored into the debate.
Similar ambiguity has also been reflected within political parties. France’s main conservative party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), found itself caught in the political trap of having to oppose any policy championed by rival leftists — but this time involving a social reform many UMP members and officials privately support. As part of that often pro forma resistance, conservatives introduced nearly 5,000 amendments to undermine the text — virtually all of which were struck down during 10 straight days of frequently uproarious parliamentary debate. Maintaining party discipline in the face of personal conviction wasn’t always easy. Heading into Tuesday’s vote, UMP leaders warned that perhaps 15% of the party’s 196 legislators might support the bill or abstain during voting, despite the official order to reject the Hollande measure. In the end, two UMP legislators voted for the bill — along with five centrists — with another five conservative PMs opting not to vote at all.
Divided conservative ranks over gay marriage weren’t limited to France’s opposition. On Feb. 5, the U.K.’s House of Commons approved a measure to legalize marriage for same-sex couples in Britain that split the right. In stark contrast to France, however, the Tory-tabled U.K. bill won support of opposition Labour MPs in clearing passage, as some 176 Conservative legislators voted against the text, abstained or disqualified themselves by casting ballots for and against it.
But such fissures haven’t been limited to parties of the right. Several Socialist Party legislators from less laissez-faire overseas territories had warned before Tuesday’s vote they might vote against the text to express concerns they and their constituents had with Marriage for All. More hard-line leftists in Hollande’s majority promised that once the measure became law, they’d quickly push to have another chapter added to it so fertilization treatment for same-sex couples would be covered by France’s state health care system as it is for heterosexuals. Debate within the left and right alike becomes even more animated over the issue of same-sex couples using surrogate mothers to procreate.
Despite the various layers of disagreement over Marriage for All, the measure was never at risk of failing to clear initial passage Tuesday en route for probable upper-house approval in April. Though the left’s majority in the upper chamber is far slimmer — just six seats — the legislation is expected to be voted through in early April. Yet even then, opponents promise to continue denouncing the measure — starting with a March 24 remake of the January marches that drew as many as 800,000 people into the streets of Paris. Religious and political conservatives maintain that the bill will undermine the solidity, structure, and even concept of the family unit. They pledge to keep attacking the initiative in the defense of children — even after it becomes law.
While that promises more of the remarkably large, well-organized protests that opponents have staged since late 2012, those are very unlikely to have any affect on Marriage for All. Though that very vocal French minority is good at airing its unhappiness with the bill, Hollande knows the far larger voting majority of French society considers the reform fair, curative, and long overdue — and just doesn’t say so as loud.