France is known as a tolerant country on many social issues, yet the country is embroiled in a debate about same-sex marriage and adoption.
President Francois Hollande is following through on a campaign promise to bring full rights to gay couples. France legalized civil unions more than a decade ago, though same-sex couples must still go abroad to marry or adopt.
But opposition to Hollande’s measure has been unexpectedly fierce, something the Socialist government wasn’t expecting.
Thousands of supporters of same-sex marriage took to the streets in Paris last weekend in support of the government’s plans to legalize marriage and adoption for gay couples.
But they were playing catch-up.
In October and November, groups opposed to same-sex marriage staged several large demonstrations across France, attracting tens of thousands of people. The new measure has highlighted the divide between urban and rural France.
Treading Carefully Around Religion
But rarely do demonstrators wave signs with Bible verses.
It’s not about religion, at least not on the surface, says Gilles Wullus editor-in-chief of Tetu, a magazine for homosexuals.
“There is a kind of taboo in France for using religion in the political debate. There is a strong tradition of avoiding religious arguments in politics. That’s French history,” says Wullus. “So even for the conservatives it’s very delicate to use religious beliefs. But that doesn’t mean that religion is out of the mind[s] of these people.”
In a rare move, and to the surprise of many, the French Catholic Church has become involved in the debate. Since the separation of church and state in France more than a century ago, the church rarely injects itself into political and societal matters.
But this time the archbishop of Paris, Monsignor Andre Vingt-Trois, spoke out on TV and radio, saying that society was threatened by such changes in the family structure. Many believe the Vatican is behind the church’s rare outspokenness because France is a large and strategic Catholic country.
Other European Catholic countries, like Belgium and Spain, have already legalized gay marriage and adoption. Analysts say one reason France has not is that it was the first to adopt civil unions for same-sex couples in 1999.
A Debate About Parenting
Opposition to the new measure seems mainly centered around children.
Parisian Eric Robichon voices a commonly heard viewpoint: “I think gay couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples, like in matters of inheritance. After all, they pay taxes too. But I draw the line there. I think a child needs a father and a mother, and this could open a Pandora’s box.”
Wullus says the declining status of marriage is another reason the opposition is focused on children.
“Marriage is not a big institution in France. Most couples aren’t married,” Wullus says. “They have pacts, civil union or nothing. Unlike the U.S., marriage is not very well considered here, except in the bourgeois families.”
The absence of a religious tone to the French protests seems strange to someone used to the Bible-centric, American opposition to gay marriage.
Recently in the city of Lyon, hundreds of people acted out a scene with a person dressed in a butterfly suit, with one wing that said “papa,” and the other “maman.”
As the newly hatched butterfly staggered to walk and stretch its wings, hundreds of men and women seated on the sidewalk on different sides of the creature reached out to prop him up, alternately screaming, “Mama! Papa!”
The message was clear — a child needs both parents to fully develop. But the scene was more than just bizarre.
The French government has been caught off guard by the strength of the opposition. After an outcry from a group of rural mayors who said they didn’t want to marry same-sex couples, Hollande said they could call in their deputies to do it.
Hollande had to backtrack amid an uproar over whether people would now be able to choose the laws they wished to obey.
The bill legalizing gay marriage and adoption will go before parliament this spring. There is likely to be a contentious debate over whether it will include the right to assisted reproduction.
With or without this component, the law is set to be promulgated by June just ahead of Paris’ annual gay pride parade.