After weeks of fierce protests against (and counterprotests in favor of) mariage pour tous (“marriage for all”), the French National Assembly cast the final vote 331-225 in favor of legalizing marriage for same-sex couples on Tuesday. President François Hollande made same-sex marriage a central promise during his presidential campaign. The victory, though a clear success of Hollande’s Socialist Party and move towards a more liberal society, also exposed a deep divide in the population about its future identity.
The French Republic, proud of its motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” since its beginnings in the French Revolution, is now the fourteenth country worldwide where same-sex couples enjoy the right to get married. The Socialist Party made this project a top priority, in the hope of creating a society that lives up to its principles by reducing legal discrimination against gays and lesbians. Before Tuesday, same-sex couples were entitled to a civil union agreement, known as pacte civil de solidarité (PACS).
After the count of the final vote was released, delegates supporting the law gave a standing ovation while shouting “equality” in France’s lower house. Christine Taubria, France’s Justice Minister, held the closing speech to members of her party and was visibly overwhelmed by her emotions. She expressed how proud she was to be part of this historical moment that celebrated and finally accepted the individually of all.
Despite a very emotional and victorious closing scene, the last session of the National Assembly on same-sex marriage didn’t conceal the fact that this is a highly contentious issue in France. Just minutes before the vote was announced by Claude Bartolone, the President of the National Assembly, visitors seated on the balcony disturbed the scene as they attempted to raise a banner calling for a referendum. Bartolone became visibly angry about the illegal interruption and requested those who don’t respect democracy to leave the room.
The demonstrations of discontent during and after the passage of the law revealed a deep divide in the French population regarding marriage equality. Although polls demonstrate that the majority of the French population is in favor of giving same-sex couples the right to get married, there are firm opponents that will continue to express their disagreement with the new policy and the social change it brings.
In recent months, mass demonstrations for and against the new legislation have appeared in cities all around the country, sometimes counting up to several hundred thousand participants. Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religious leaders as well as conservative politicians supported the demonstrations against legalizing same-sex marriage. Within the population, young people as well as old people went to the streets. The demographic diversity of the demonstrators showed that this was not some sort of outcry of an older generation trying to impose their view on younger ones. Instead, it pointed towards a much more complex split within French society about the changing values of a progressive world with more rights to individual freedom.
Hence, the debate doesn’t seem to be only about same-sex marriage, but carries much greater meaning for both sides. For one part of the population, allowing same-sex marriage stands for eliminating discrimination while creating a more equal society where everyone is free to choose for their own. The other part is wary of what such change will bring and clings to a more conservative and traditionally Christian family values. The latter part views the “new civilization” that Christine Taubira imagines to follow from the law as a clear threat to their values.
The expression of disapproval against marriage equality went beyond peaceful and sometimes violent demonstrations. Less than two weeks ago, there were two incidents of homophobic violence in gay bars in Lille and Bordeaux, where one man was beaten up and several others attacked. And only a few days before the law was passed, two Socialist delegates received letters with death threats.
The opposition was most fiercely concerned about the part of the law that would allow gay couples the right to jointly adopt children. They expressed concern that same-sex parents would not be good role models for children, or that their own children will grow up with a wrong image of family life if exposed to children raised by parents of the same sex. Hence, they feared that marriage equality would result in an overall degeneration of morals.
Such views suggest that Christian values still have a strong influence over a large part of France’s society. Although France has waged a program of dechristianization as early as the French Revolution in 1789 that culminated in the official separation of church and state in 1905, a part of French society is still attached to Christian morals– demonstrated, not least, by the strong involvement of organisations affiliated with the Catholic Church in the anti-gay marriage protests.
In this regard, Tuesday April 23, 2013 really was a historical moment for the French Republic in a broader sense, as well, as it continued, in the proud French tradition of laïcité, to dechristianize and liberalize the social sphere. The French were dictated a new future identity with support of a majority but opposition from a much louder minority. On this day, the National Assembly followed the Senate by adopting the law that creates a more equal society, in which those who have been alienated and discriminated against can finally enjoy equal treatment under the law.
Hopefully the consequences of the new law will make clear that a society where everyone is free to choose for their own will raise happy and healthy children with great morals, regardless of the parent’s gender or the gender of another child’s parents. Evidently, François Hollande would only benefit from a more united front as he tries to tackle other difficult issues, such as record high unemployment and the cohesion of the Eurozone.