On Tuesday, January 28th, members of the French Parliament began their deliberations on a bill regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage. Outside, in the streets of Paris, thousands rallied in support of the legislation, waving rainbow flags and playing upbeat pop music from decades past. The future of the measure could dictate the future of gay rights both within France and outside its borders.
The French Question
Although homosexuality is allowed under European Union law, and EU member states are forbidden from discriminating against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation in terms of employment, gay men and women are still not guaranteed the same rights and privileges granted to their heterosexual counterparts. Same-sex relationships are legally recognized by sixteen of twenty-seven EU member states, and adoption by same-sex couples is legal in only nine. Once countries outside the EU are also taken into account, less than half of European countries recognize some form of same-sex union, while ten countries constitutionally define marriage as between a man and a woman.
Despite the large crowds that protested against the measure earlier this month, France seems poised to pass the proposed bill. Under the current system, homosexual couples are allowed to take part in a civil solidarity pact, or a PACS, which grants them some of the rights and responsibilities given to married couples. Turning the proposal into law would mean extending the option of marriage to same-sex couples, effectively making them equivalent to straight couples. Within the French populace, support for same-sex marriage has stayed at a stable majority, even though the numbers at the protests held against and in favor of the bill would indicate otherwise. A 2006 poll found that sixty-two percent of the French were in favor of legalization; in 2011, that number remained steady at sixty-three. However, changing political fortunes now mean that the popular support has the political momentum as well. François Hollande, the country’s current president, ran on a platform of support of same-sex marriage, a clear divergence from the ambiguity on the issue maintained by his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. And, although the National Assembly voted against legalization in 2011, the Socialist party, of which Hollande is a member, promised to make the issue a priority if it were elected to the majority in 2012. Now that the party has a solid majority in both houses, circumstances are prime for the approval of the legislation. If the bill passes, France would become the ninth nation in the world to grant full equality to its citizens, regardless of sexual orientation.
Outside of France, arguably the greatest effect the French debate on the issue will have is in England. The English are set to begin debating the question, with Parliament’s first chance to vote on the issue on February 5th. Given the relative similarities between the countries and the proximity of the debates, French approval of same-sex marriage could potentially open the door for English approval as well. Currently, the atmosphere within the United Kingdom is somewhat less supportive of legalization, with over one hundred Tory Members of Parliament against the measure. Despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s cautious support of a plan to allow for same-sex marriage, the Conservative Party remains divided on the issue, meaning the path to legalization could potentially be a long and bitter road. If France were to fail to pass the bill, this could translate into a severe loss in support among the English, a crippling blow to the English LBGTQ community. However, considering the political actualities of the French situation, this seems unlikely, meaning the path to same-sex marriage in England is fast becoming a reality.
On a larger scale, however, it appears that France’s potential passage of the bill will have little effect. Though French legalization could translate into greater momentum for the LGBTQ movement in the United States, the U.S. already seems to be on a trajectory towards equal rights for homosexuals. Outside of the western world, in countries such as Cameroon, which recently upheld the conviction and prison sentence of a man charged with homosexuality, and Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death, France’s actions will have no impact. Whether by virtue of anti-Western sentiment or religious fundamentalism, state sponsored homophobia is present across the globe. On January 25th, the lower house of the Russian parliament passed a draft law banning promoting “homosexual propaganda” to minors with one vote short of unanimity, a measure that seemingly condones violence against gay rights activists. Practically speaking, a French measure legalizing same-sex marriage will do little to change the policies of these countries. Only harsher measures such as economic sanctions and governmental rebukes will bring about a global standard of equality for the LGBTQ community.
A sign at one of the French rallies boldly proclaimed that its owner was “proud to be on the right side of history.” And while the sentiment behind the poster is neither new nor shocking, it does raise a significant question. We are often told to study history to avoid repeating the past. But when a world has suffered the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, and the Red Terror, the question to ask isn’t whose side is right, but how much longer. How much longer will we continue to repeat the past and ignore the lesson of history? How much longer and in how many ways will we proceed to divide ourselves? How much longer will we wait until there is liberty and justice for all?
Photo Credit: The Atlantic