Is Gay Marriage Too Progressive for the French?

The leftist government of French President François Hollande tables legislation to legalize same-sex marriages and adoptions amid rising opposition and public hesitation

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JEFF PACHOUD / AFP / Getty Images

Two French policewomen, Raphaelle and her companion Fabienne, pose with one of their three children on Oct. 24, 2012

This week, the leftist government of French President François Hollande initiated draft legislation legalizing marriage and adoption for same-sex couples. But it’s a bill already generating stronger opposition than many expected in this famously progressive society. Indeed, while the bill unveiled on Nov. 7 aims to fulfill one of Hollande’s more popular campaign pledges, recent polls show support sagging for moves to extend gay couples the same rights enjoyed by heterosexual unions. Some reports claim even the President may be less than convinced about the necessity of reform.

The clamor against gay marriage in France flies in the face of a country famous for its supposedly open-minded attitudes on a host of social and behavioral issues. And ironically, that hesitation also comes just as American voters — whom many French consider pathologically puritanical — passed same-sex-union ballot initiatives in three states on Nov. 6. Contrasting with those progressive American election results are comments by French industrialist and conservative legislator Serge Dassault on the same day. Responding to Hollande’s same-sex-marriage reform, Dassault warned that its goal of giving gay and lesbian couples the same legal status as heterosexual unions meant the “end of the family, the end of child development … an enormous danger for the entire nation.”

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“Look at history — it’s one of the reasons for the decadence of Greece,” Dassault told France Culture radio in comments about legalizing same-gender marriage. “There will be no more reproduction, so what’s the point? Do we want a nation of gays? If so, in 10 years, there’ll be no one left. It’s stupid.”

Just who’s the prude now, chers français?

The French legislation, dubbed Marriage for All, was introduced on Nov. 7 at the weekly Cabinet meeting as the first stop in its journey toward parliamentary debate in January. Its stated objective is to “open marriage to couples of the same sex” and “consequentially also open the path to adoption for married people of the same sex”.

Extending same-gender couples the same legal recognition and rights as married heterosexuals was a major plank in Hollande’s campaign platform earlier this year. It was also one of the main social reforms on which he clashed with French conservatives, who repeatedly rejected the idea during their decade in power. Given the left’s parliamentary majorities, there’s little risk the politically and socially symbolic bill will fail to gain passage and become law by mid-2013.

“This is a step toward equality that took too long in coming and is moving toward reality,” said Women’s Rights Minister and government spokesperson Najat Vallaud-Belkacem during a weekly press briefing on Wednesday. “It doesn’t represent a victory of one category of people over others, but a victory for society as a whole.”

Not everyone in France sees it that way. In the run-up to the bill’s introduction on Wednesday, thousands of demonstrators joined protests across France denouncing the measure. A petition opposing the draft drew more than 1,000 signatures from mostly conservative mayors. Rightist politicians have challenged the bill with varying degrees of fury — Dassault representing the more bombastic extreme.

Jean-François Copé, leader of the right’s main Union for a Popular Movement party, called on Hollande to pull back what he called a badly prepared text creating change that France is not ready for. Christine Boutin — a former Cabinet member and Catholic fundamentalist — last month warned Parliament “the logic of this situation is if we have marriage [for everyone], we’ll move toward polygamy.” A fellow conservative official did Boutin one better, throwing incest into the mix of new deviant trends the legalization of same-sex marriage and adoption would spawn.

More dignified opposition has come from a rare interfaith protest bloc. Leaders of all major religions in France — Catholic, Muslim, Protestant and Jewish — have decried the measure for upending traditional definitions of marriage and family. During an address to French bishops on Nov. 3, Roman Catholic archbishop of Paris, André Vingt-Trois, also denounced the reform as “a sham” catering to a social minority, under which the definition of “marriage of a few [is] imposed on everyone.” He wasn’t alone in viewing the initiative as political pandering.

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“There will be neither courage nor glory in voting a law that relies more on slogans than arguments and conforming to dominant political correctness out of fear of scorn,” writes Gilles Bernheim, chief rabbi of France, in an open letter opposing the initiative.

That pushback would have materialized in any case, but it’s also being fueled by signs that French public support for the reform is waning. Though recent polls show a majority of people still supporting same-sex marriage and adoption rights, those levels appear to be dropping. A survey this month by Ifop for Le Monde shows support for legalization of same-sex marriage still at its historical high of 65%, but the level regarding adoption dropping to 52%. An annual poll published on Nov. 3 by BVA showed significant declines on both questions.

Now, according to one French news report on Thursday, even (the unmarried) Hollande is not that convinced the measure is as socially, ethically or legally important as it is politically significant.

Christiane Taubira, the French Justice Minister sponsoring the bill, dismissed any doubts about Hollande’s commitment to the bill, or the government’s determination to remedy long-standing injustices. “This is the audacity of equality,” Taubira told a press conference on Wednesday about the reform. “This is about respecting values of equality for everyone and acting in the best interests of children.”

It’s unlikely external opposition — and even some waffling among leftist politicians — will prevent the bill from becoming law. Yet its passage still won’t allow France to stake out any particularly lofty progressive high ground vis-à-vis European partners, or even some U.S. states. Twelve countries — including the U.K., Sweden and Denmark — have already enacted laws placing same-sex marriages on the same footing as heterosexual unions. On Wednesday, Spain’s Supreme Court struck down the final legal challenge to a law legalizing same-sex marriages and adoption.

Several other countries and U.S. states, meanwhile, allow gay and lesbian individuals and couples to adopt children — even in some places where same-sex marriage as such isn’t recognized. On Wednesday, voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington State cleared the way for legalization of same-sex marriage by passing state initiatives on the issue. In Minnesota, a proposal to alter the state constitution to prohibit recognizing same-sex couples as married was defeated.

Now, those and other U.S. states that have previously adopted equal or neutral positions on same-gender unions and parenting must wait to see if the famously live-and-let-live French will take the same steps as their less puritain American peers.

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