Understanding France’s Gay Marriage Battles

How did a supposedly liberal country wind up with such a nasty controversy?

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Vincent Autin, left, puts the ring to the finger at Bruno Boileau, during their civil wedding at Montpelier City Hall, Wednesday May 29, 2013. Bruno Boileau, 30, from Paris and Vincent Autin, 40, are the first same-sex couple to marry in France, since French government voted a new law legalizing same-sex marriage.

Almost a year after the election of François Hollande as the president of France, the country has been facing a series of visceral crises. But none of them has been as dividing and politicized as the one regarding same-sex marriage.

The massive manifestations taking place throughout France in January, and especially on May 26, 2013, opposed to same-sex marriage and advocating for the protection of the traditional heterosexual family have raised important questions about French society. What is the degree of acceptability of the French society? Is French society a bastion of conservatism wrapped in liberalism?

On April 23, 2013, the French Parliament adopted a law on same-sex marriage that was later approved by the Constitutional Council. The first official French gay marriage took place on May 29 between Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau in Montpellier.

Interestingly, according to the French polling agency IFOP, the issue of same-sex marriage is predominantly perceived as a secondary issue, as opposed to the questions of deindustrialization and national debt. And the people who say they are concerned about same-sex marriage are mostly in favour of it, but evenly split on the question of adoption by gay couples.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

In order to understand this complex issue, I had the privilege to interview Dr. Ana P. Morgenstern, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Miami and expert on social movements. Here is our discussion: 

Question: What is exactly the issue of same-sex marriage? 

The trend of same-sex marriage, which is usually framed as an "equality" issue, as it gives same-sex couples the same rights under the same name (a slogan used by Spanish LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender] activists on their push toward achieving same-sex marriage in 2005). Starting with the Netherlands in 2001, same-sex marriage was adopted by several European countries, which established this policy as a legitimate and appropriate response to the demands from an interconnected transnational advocacy group.

Q: Can you go through the debate on gay marriage in France these last couple years. What were the core differences between President Sarkozy and Hollande? 

Though the country legalized civil unions in 1999, the issue of same-sex marriage was politicized during the past two elections as, on the one hand, Ségolène Royal [Socialist candidate for president in 2007] stated she would legalize same-sex marriage, but [Nicolas] Sarkozy opposed legalization during his presidential bid and upheld his promises. At this juncture, it was clear that the issue had become a political campaign issue, and it would only grow in salience in the following election.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Same Sex Marriage Be Left to the States?]

In 2011 demands from activists to amend the Constitution in favor of recognizing same-sex marriage was stopped by the Constitutional Council, which stated the issue would be best decided by the legislature. The salience of the issue kept on growing, not only in France, but around the world, as many on the left have used it to gain political support in times of economic crises and weakened redistributive policy options. The debate continued on to the next election, as Hollande promised he would make same-sex marriage a reality. Hollande delivered, but at a political cost.

Q: Could you discuss the subtleties of the French law on gay marriage?

A: In France, the national courts had already demonstrated in 2007 their lack of openness to same-sex relationships. A marriage performed in 2004 was nullified by the civil court or Court de Cassation. This first marriage was the beginning of the politicization of same-sex marriage. The marriage was performed by Noël Mamère, a member of the Green Party and then Mayor of Bègles. He also introduced legislation to amend the civil code and legalize marriage for all couples. However, this proposal went nowhere as it lacked backing from any other party. 

Q: Are you concerned about the seemingly rise of violence perpetuated in France against homosexuals? Is it a new trend? 

A: The underlying tension comes as France offers a civilian marriage based on Catholic tradition. The strong centralized state and its welfare state favor the [traditional] family, thus the change is quite profound. The civil ceremony is obligatory for all French citizens. The debate showcases how the shift in the institution has questioned the foundations of the country's national identity and the compromise achieved by De Gaulle [the first President of the Fifth Republic] of [a] secular state with some foundation on faith-based institutions is now severely weakened. Overcoming the current homophobia and challenges from the right and extremist right will necessitate strong leadership once more. 

[VOTE: Was the Supreme Court Right on Gay Marriage?]

Q: Where does the rest of Europe stand on gay politics? 

A: The backlash François Hollande's government has received over the legalization of same-sex marriage in France may seem at first surprising. Overall, the policy allowing co-habitation rights has been in place in European countries since 1989, when Denmark opened the door to legalization of registered partnerships. Since then, European countries have liberalized policies that created Registered Partnerships, Same-Sex Civil Unions and Same-Sex marriage (see timeline below). Furthermore, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favor of several claims brought forward by LGBT individuals. For instance, the European Court of Human Rights issued a decision in 1999 finding the UK government's ban in LGBT individuals serving in the armed forces violated the Convention. The ECHR [European Court of Human Rights] found there was discrimination on the basis of sexuality is a violation of human rights.

Source: The Interviewee

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the Supreme Court Overturn the Defense of Marriage Act?]

An additional case brought forward at the ECHR ruled against France in 2008 for denying adoption to a woman on the basis of her sexual orientation. The Court cited that "for the purposes of Article 14, a difference in treatment is discriminatory if it has no objective and reasonable justification," which means that it does not pursue a "legitimate aim" or that there is no "reasonable proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised" [...]. Where sexual orientation is an issue, there is a need for particularly convincing and weighty reasons to justify a difference in treatment regarding rights falling within Article 8."

Having found that there was discrimination because of the woman's sexual orientation, the ECHR also ordered France to pay 10,000 euros in damages and 14,528 euros in costs. This ruling however did not change policy in France the way the previous instance impacted the UK.

Maxime Larivé is a fellow at the EU Center of Excellence at the University of Miami, where he is also a lecturer, and a senior blogger for the Foreign Policy Association.

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