Gay Rights and Civil Unions: The French Debate

Gay Rights and Civil Unions: The French Debate

In recent years, the recognition of gay couples has become a public question in many Western democracies. Approaches differ depending on history, culture, and laws, yet few countries have passed general laws dealing with gay unions. Although French republicanism and the French model of “republican integration” are conventionally “blind to differences,” the French legislature last year approved a “civil union agreement,” the Pacte civile de solidarité (PACS). This law gives a new status to unmarried couples, heterosexual and homosexual. More than thirty thousand such agreements have been signed since the law went into effect in November 1999.

Origin of the PACS

In 1981, discrimination against gays was still enshrined in French law. The age of consent for heterosexual couples was fifteen, for homosexual couples, eighteen; police kept surveillance files on people who had sex with someone of the same gender; laws required civil servants and tenants to behave like “good family men”; and films and books were censored. After the left came to power, with the election of François Mitterrand in 1981, things changed. In less than two years, laws were revised, police files expurgated, censorship abolished, and the law became officially neutral with respect to sexuality. But although legal discrimination was done away with, the law did not recognize, define, or even acknowledge homosexuality. France thus gave no positive recognition to “difference” in this sense. In Mitterrand’s words, “homosexuality was no longer an offense.”

Although 1981 to 1983 saw the legal “normalization” of homosexuality, it was not until the 1990s that the demand for recognition of gay couples achieved prominence. A principle motivating force for this change—though not the only one—was the AIDS epidemic. AIDS revealed many forms of discrimination as homosexuals were rejected by their dead partners’ families or evicted from the apartments they had shared. Legislation for all unmarried couples (not only gay ones) was needed simply because of their numbers and particularly because activists of the May 1968 era were reaching retirement age. Between 1995 and 1997 the debate attracted so much media attention that the new left-wing government of Lionel Jospin was compelled to act.

But how to act? Should gay marriage be allowed, as some gay activists in the United States demand? Should the legislature extend past cohabitation laws to homosexual couples, in order to supersede several negative decisions of the Cour de Cassation (roughly equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court)? Should there be a specific status for gay couples, as in Denmark, a kind of legal framework protecting them and particular to them?

Marriage was dismissed because nearly all deputies in the National Assembly were opposed to it. Also, public opinion surveys showed a majority of the population to be hostile to the idea, and the French ga...

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