Gay Marriage and the Limits of French Liberalism

Gay Marriage and the Limits of French Liberalism

"Mom and dad: there is nothing better for a child!" (ANFAD, Flickr creative commons)

Last spring the rights of same-sex couples gained recognition in a number of places throughout the world. In the United States, three states—Delaware, Minnesota, and Rhode Island—legalized same-sex marriage, while supreme courts in two heavyweights on the international scene, Brazil and Germany, struck down statutes discriminating against homosexuals in the name of equality under the law. All these places have quite different social structures and legal systems, yet gay marriage did not stir much controversy in any of them.

But it was different in France—and for regrettable reasons. To be sure, on May 18 President François Hollande did sign a law stipulating that “marriage is a contract between two persons who are either of the same sex or of a different sex.” Eleven days later, Hélène Mandroux, the mayor of Montpellier, was the first public official to wed a homosexual couple.

But what fears and turmoil the debate aroused! On May 21 the right-wing historian Dominique Venner (a former member of the OAS, the clandestine organization created to kill Charles de Gaulle in order avenge the loss of Algeria) committed suicide on the altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Venner wanted, he said, to “awaken consciences” and stir them against “the erosion of European civilization.” Other opponents of the law summoned a long list of natural right and counterrevolutionary thinkers, from Thomas Aquinas to Joseph de Maistre.

Then, on June 10, one anti-gay group tried to exploit the memory of the 1944 massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, where SS soldiers slew 642 people, including many children, by setting the church in which they had found refuge on fire. At the end of the annual ceremony paying tribute to the victims of this tragedy, the cabinet minister for veterans was presented with a petition demanding that “such atrocities and violence shall never happen again. Nor should those in power ever impose unjust laws on a free people, without paying heed to the needs of the weakest members in our society, namely, children.” Meanwhile, the extreme right-wing think tank Civitas (whose motto is “Neither Masonic nor secular, France is Catholic”) called for “steadfast resistance to the subversive plan of this revolutionary government led by obscure forces.”

Why all this fuss? It isn’t simply because two women wanted to get married so that one of them could adopt the ten-year-old child they had raised together for eight years. The controversy was so heated because of three developments in contemporary France that became intertwined.

First was the 2012 election of Hollande, the Socialist candidate, as president. Hollande’s platform endorsed same-sex marriage as well as the legalization of child adoption by gay couples. Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent, opposed both measures in order to appeal to the far right, most of which is found in the National Front. For Sarkozy, this signified a change of strategy, not belief. In 2007, soon after he was elected president, he extended to gay couples the same fiscal advantages that married couples have. Indeed, he had never been accused of homophobia before. His wife, the singer Carla Bruni, has a number of close gay friends.

In 2012, following the advice of two of his most influential spin doctors—the ultra-nationalist Patrick Buisson and the “social Gaullist” Henri Guaino—Sarkozy broke with the strategy he had used in 2007, when he ran as a centrist against the Socialist candidate Segolène Royal. To win against Hollande, a man who values compromise and is more a social democrat than a true socialist, Buisson and Guaino advocated adopting the mantle of traditionalism to win over the most reactionary currents in French society. Sarkozy set out to deny the National Front a monopoly on the political exploitation of fears and status anxieties about both homosexuals and recent immigrants. As a result, the election was much closer than the polls had predicted, even if Hollande did triumph.

Sarkozy’s move to the right for the 2012 campaign had significant consequences for the debate about gay marriage. His anti-gay stance was enough of a success to convince Jean François Copé, head of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the party of Sarkozy and the mainstream right, to persist in using it. With the Tea Party as his model, he saw an opportunity to put Hollande’s government on the defensive at a time when the economic crisis was already eroding its popularity. In many of the large anti-gay marriage demonstrations, the foot soldiers of the UMP marched down the streets alongside the defenders of traditional social and religious values—the ultra-conservative bourgeoisie, orthodox religious institutions (Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish), and a nebula of neo-fascist groups that share a nostalgia for French Algeria, the Vichy Regime, and sometimes even Nazism. Jacques Chirac, who presided over French conservatism from the 1970s to Sarkozy’s election in 2007, had always tried to quarantine the mainstream right from such forces.

To win against Hollande, a man who values compromise and is more a social democrat than a true socialist, Sarkozy’s advisers advocated adopting the mantle of traditionalism to win over the most reactionary currents in French society.

Opponents of gay marriage did not just mobilize the activist right; they also enjoyed the support of many pundits, including some on the left. Few of them resisted the temptation to dress up their prejudice as analytical thinking. Denying the democratic legitimacy of the decision made by the representatives of the people, many commentators considered it their duty to warn against the grave danger in which the sorcerer’s apprentices in the National Assembly were putting the country, Western civilization, even the entire human species. This gave the debate a third turn of the screw.

The Roman Catholic Church loomed large in this effort. Its conservatism in sexual matters is nothing new; for nearly half a century, popes have denounced birth control, abortion, and homosexual relations. As the sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger put it in Le Monde, “The rhetoric used by the Church (that same-sex couples equal the end of civilization, that they kick out the foundations of human identity, and that they imperil the nuclear family and blur the difference between the sexes) was exactly the rhetoric used in earlier struggles against women’s work or the legalization of divorce by mutual consent.”

Here it matters that France used to be a Catholic country. The Church’s backward struggle against gay marriage could be seen as its last gasp against the process of secularization that has been at work since the French Revolution. “The democratic impulse now reaches into the private sphere,” Hervieu-Léger continued, “and allows people to claim fundamental rights that no law from above—whether the manifestation of God’s will or even nature’s—can deny.”

France, as a secular nation, was expressly built not against God’s law but alongside it. Freedom of religion is widely recognized, but no supra-constitutional order can be used to oppress a minority. As for the “laws of nature” often touted by conservatives, the Conseil constitution (equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court) has sternly ruled that they have no place in French law. The Conseil, in spite of having a conservative majority, validated the marriage law, stating that “while heretofore the law has defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman, this rule can in no way be seen as a founding principle of the Republic. Any attempt to challenge the law on the grounds that marriage is ‘naturally’ the union of a man and a woman will fail.”

The ruling of the Conseil constitutionnel bears emphasizing because, in France, law is a very conservative discipline. In fact, a significant number of jurists made common cause with supposedly progressive sociologists and philosophers who opposed gay marriage in the name of an “anthropological order.” Sylviane Agacinski—the wife of former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin—wrote for Le Monde a widely cited opinion piece entitled “Two Mothers = One Father?” Agacinski defined the question of gay parenthood as a “forceful denial of the finite and incomplete character of both sexes”—the same argument she had used years before to oppose a law allowing civil unions for same-sex couples.

A class-conscious variant of this rhetoric appeared in the Communist newspaper L’Humanité as part of an interview with Dany Robert Dufour, a left-wing libertarian professor of educational sciences at the University of Paris. Dufour presents himself as a néo-résistant who rejects the neoliberal wave. “Working-class people are less interested in reforms such as gay marriage,” he wrote, “because more than others, they see that capitalism is really what drives this ‘permanent revolution.’ So they are wary of them, and this makes it easy to tag them as ‘reactionaries’ or ‘neo-reactionaries.’” According to Dufour, whose thinking on this matter cannot be easily distinguished from that of the right, “the true freedom of humankind depends on our ability to face the unavoidable question of sexual divisions in our species: surely every child has a right to have a father and a mother?” Needless to say, this “unavoidable question” and “the right of a child to have a father and a mother” are Dufour’s own constructions. Anthropologists, sociologists of the family, and historians have all demonstrated that there have been many family models in the course of human history.

In many of the large anti-gay marriage demonstrations, the foot soldiers of the UMP marched down the streets alongside the defenders of traditional social and religious values—the ultra-conservative bourgeoisie, orthodox religious institutions (Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish), and a nebula of neo-fascist groups.

The last argument used by opponents of same-sex marriage draws on the long French tradition of anti-Americanism. Gay communitarianism and a promethean desire to do away with the laws of nature are resented as two aspects of a broader project spawned in the United States that seeks to expand the sphere of capitalistic activity by allowing medically assisted procreation and surrogacy contracts. As Dufour wrote in Le Monde, “Let homosexuals marry if they so desire. Let them create and subvert roles and signs of masculinity and femininity….[But] homosexuals should realize that they will never be able to claim full equality with heterosexual couples because the capacity to have children is not a natural function they are missing, but a basic impossibility.”

The issue of gay marriage reveals the limits of France’s vaunted liberalism on sexual matters. Indeed, the editorial pillars of French intellectual life—not only Le Monde but also the center-left publication Le Débat and the more conservative Commentaire—gave a good deal of space to writers who opposed the rights of same-sex couples. As the legal scholar Daniel Borrillo noted, “Each time the rights of sexual minorities have been on the agenda, a number of pundits have used the threat of gay communitarianism to suggest that the republican fabric of society would unravel if gay rights were acknowledged.”

To be sure, the words and phrases that frame this type of conservatism have changed. While in the 1960s homosexuals were often accused of being “perverts,” in the 1990s they were said to be too “different.” Today, opposition to the rights of same-sex couples is said to be a question of “choice.” New bottles, but old wine—the rejection of true equality under the law has remained the same.

Although Socialists enacted the legalization of gay marriage, most of them failed to mount a spirited defense of the law—just as fifteen years ago, when the civil union law was debated, the Socialist Party seemed reluctant to deliver on its own campaign promise, which had been included on its platform to appeal to young leftists. During the debates in the National Assembly in the spring of 2013, many members of Hollande’s party provided only half-hearted or token support for the proposed reform. This often left the pugnacious minister of justice, Christiane Taubira, the representative for French Guyana, fighting a lonely battle against right-wingers. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault publicly opposed the Socialists’ own family minister, who argued that the issue of medically assisted procreation (MAP) for homosexual couples could not be distinguished from the issue of marriage. In fact, only the Greens and the Communists—who hold few votes in the assembly—were willing to have a real debate on this question. As a result, French lesbians who want recourse to MAP must still travel to Brussels or Amsterdam—an unsettling echo from the past, when French women traveled to the same places to obtain abortions.

When it comes to sexual rights, the French left could be a lot bolder. But the only audacity most Socialists displayed cut the other way. In an odd speech given at the annual meeting of the 36,000-member French association of mayors—many of whom are conservative—Hollande himself suggested that they could always invoke the “conscience clause” if they did not want to wed gay couples. This was an amazing statement from the person who is supposed to be the guardian of the constitution, especially because there is no such thing as a “conscience clause” in French law. Rather, as the interior minister quickly—and quietly—reminded the prefects, refusing to marry gay couples would be an indictable breach of duty.

The issue of gay marriage thus reveals a social conservatism that remains strong even on the French left. Consider that only 2 of the 577 deputies in the National Assembly have come out as gays. Should we conclude that 99.65 percent of the representatives of the French people are heterosexual? If so, it is debatable whether they truly represent the republic they were elected to serve. Or perhaps our deputies, a majority of whom are Socialists, still believe in the virtues of the closet.

Translated by Jean-Christian Vinel.


Marc Olivier Baruch previously worked in the French departments of education and culture and the office of the prime minister. He now teaches contemporary history and history of the state in the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. He has written books on occupied France, postwar purges, and public elites under dictatorships, and a forthcoming essay on French historians and the law.


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