A nation divided over same sex marriage

February 6, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

I sat in bed on Tuesday morning sipping my green tea with lemon and thinking of gay marriage. I should explain this took place in Paris. “Ah, all is now explained,” you may say.

It is by the fact that on the same day France’s Parliament, the Assemblee Nationale , started the long debate to introduce same sex marriages which should become law by the middle of the year. Such laws are already the norm in Catholic Spain and Portugal. Indeed, in the UK, David Cameron is determined to extend the current civil partnerships to include religious services. Hence it may surprise you that in France, which Anglo Saxons have always thought to be liberal in sexual matters, the introduction of this law has caused such acrimony and division.

The left in France has always had the bragging rights when it comes to bringing people out on the streets over a political or social issue. Hence it is no surprise that according to police 125,000 activists demonstrated in Paris in support of the new bill on Sunday. The shock comes when you learn that 340,000 opposed to the legislation were on the streets of the capital on Tuesday of last week.

Pierre Kanuty, who speaks on international affairs at the Parti Socialiste (PS) HQ in Paris told me, “There is a majority in Parliament to pass the law, so there is no serious risk.” That is so and whilst some PS MPs may abstain, the measure is also supported by the Communists, the Greens and some centrists. Allowing same sex marriage was part of Hollande’s left wing manifesto during last year’s elections. In introducing this controversial measure he is merely honouring one of his election pledges.

The bill is a complicated one covering same sex marriage, adoption by same sex couples and assisted pregnancy for same sex couples. A majority of French people support same sex marriage (55 to 60 per cent), around 50 per cent support adoption by same sex couples and a majority oppose assisted pregnancy.

The Catholic Church is at the head of the movement to oppose the law.

Pierre Kanuty observed: “In a crusade mood, the right wing reopened somehow, the traditional split between the church and the non believers. The law will pass, but probably for a while, this split will last until mentalities change.”

This is undoubtedly true but those who oppose the law surprised themselves by the widespread support they attracted. The coalition against the bill, although supported by the main religions and parties of the right, promoted itself as a citizens’ movement. Bizarrely at the helm is a spokeswoman, a performer who goes under the name Frigide Barjot, who in recent weeks has never been off national radio or TV. Only in France!

To get a full flavour of the sentiments of those who oppose same sex marriage one has to look no further than Serge Dassault, the CEO of Dassault and a senator for the centre right UMP. He is quoted as saying “We’ll have a country of gays and in 10 years there’ll be nobody left – that’s stupid.” Cardinal Philippe Barbain, who is the Archbishop of Lyon, said the new law would open the door to incest and polygamy.

Off course the wide ranging nature of the bill is another reason for the opposition given that the majority support one section, a majority then oppose another and the French are divided on a third. Also the legal requirements regarding marriage in France are said to have played a role.

Under French law, all marriages have to be civil marriages. In other European countries churches have the right to conduct wedding ceremonies that are also legal acts. Not so in France: the marriage has to be civil and then you have the option of having it blessed in the religion of your choice if you so choose.

This means because all marriages are civil everybody is caught up in the legal change. In Spain, for instance, if same sex couples wish to get married they have a civil service conducted at the town hall. It is very different for the nation’s Catholics who are married in church and hence have no contact with a civil service.

Much of the opposition in France has been generated by those claiming that the new law will “de-structure” society by “destroying the concept in law of mother and father” and changing the time-honoured essence of the family.

However, supporters of the legislation, especially the young, counter that French society has changed. The family today, they argue, is not the same as the family of yesterday. They say the nation has to rethink its total concept of what makes up a family.

What is certain is that France will change when the French Parliament passes the new law. It remains to be seen how long it takes society to catch up.

The last word on this issue goes to the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, who is one of France’s few openly gay politicians. Delanoe observed: “The majority of French people want all couples to have equality in love and parenthood.”

This new law will ensure they do.


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This post was written by David Eade

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