The French aren’t too happy at the best of times, but there was an especially palpable sense of rage among the locals at last Sunday’s ‘La Manif Pour Tous’ (The March for Everyone) in Paris. With police expecting around 350,000 attendees (while organisers claimed there were at least 800,000) it was one of the biggest public demonstrations of recent years, causing massive disruption to the city’s infrastructure and drawing a substantial police presence onto the streets.
It was also one of the most embarrassing public spectacles that Parisians young and old had seen for some time. With its booming spiritual rock music, unusually facile placards (“Boy plus girl equals child”) and the occasional outbreak of dancing in the street, ring-a-ring-o’-roses style, it had all the manic, slightly cringe-inducing qualities of an American evangelist’s rally. The only things missing were protesters rolling around on the floor as if possessed by the Holy Spirit, or speaking in tongues.
Anti-gay (or ‘pro-marriage’, as they prefer to be called) protesters swarmed into the capital on a fleet of coaches, trains and cars from all corners of the country. They disembarked in the nearby suburbs and then marched en masse towards the heart of the city, converging under the Eiffel tower. With them they brought carnival vans blaring music from enormous speakers, on top of which young children danced, waving placards.
There were hot-dog and candy floss stands under the tower itself and enormous TV screens mounted around the Champ de Mars, broadcasting the rock concertesque performance of Frigide Barjot, the brains of the whole operation.
Barjot (real name Virginie Tellenne) is a comedian and author of Confessions of a Trendy Catholic. It was her at the forefront of this mass public display of outrage against same-sex marriage, and not a gaggle of religious leaders or right-wing politicians as may have been expected.
Clad in a pink T-shirt, and occasionally belting out her own pop songs such as ‘A Moi L’Amour’ alongside her frequent rallying cry of “man plus woman equals child!”, she is far from the conventional notion of your average gay marriage opponent.
Indeed, the same could be said of many of those who trudged through the mud and sleet on that cold Sunday morning. With all its food stands, spontaneous dance-offs and a kind of manically contagious glee etched across the faces of participants, the ‘Manif Pour Tous’ was sometimes more reminiscent of the centre of a theme park than a solemn reassertion of the values of traditional marriage.
It also struck me, somewhat reluctantly trudging alongside them later that afternoon, that a vast number of them were in their late teens or early twenties.
They sang, danced, took photos of each other beneath the Eiffel Tower, and painted blue and pink boys and girls (respectively, of course) on their cheeks.
Naturally, many of them were from religious organisations and sometimes showed it, although technically the protesters had been strictly forbidden from demonstrating any political or religious angle to their demonstration. Nonetheless, it was certainly a grand day out for them, reflected clearly in their cheerfulness and smiles – though one wonders if it was the belief they were doing the Good Lord’s work for him that gave such satisfaction.
There were some notable exceptions; BNP leader Nick Griffin was among the throng of marchers and, though he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, one wonders how comfortable French moderates were with having him along for the ride.
Elsewhere, many of the younger children in attendance, who made up a very significant proportion of the marchers, appeared to be no more than four or five years old. Marching silently, or clawing at the flags and placards brandished by their parents, many seemed sullen, not to mention bewildered as to what exactly they were protesting about.
Would-be demonstrators in Paris must register their intent with the city’s authorities in advance, and as no counter-protests were mooted in this fashion, the police had been told to shut down any spontaneous marches.
They were quite happy to do so when a group of eight or nine tried to rush across the Port D’Iéna, chanting “Egalité, Egalité” and thrusting gay pride flags in the faces of homeward-bound demonstrators.
Ultimately it was a rather restrained demonstration, in spite of its numbers and its fanfare, with no notable cases of violence, vandalism or clashing between protestors. Some Parisiens are already comparing it to the colossal education protest of 1984, when roughly 800,00 protestors converged in the city to rail against proposed reforms of private schools.
But it does mark an interesting turn of the screw in one of the most important equality debates of our time: when half a million people marched against Hollande on this issue, he and his party simply marched through them.
It summons a rare impression of confidence and drive in the French President, whose first term has been marred already by a string of gaffes and U-turns. But it also suggests that after a lengthy, fierce and sometimes inscrutable period of debate, France will have its marriage equality bill – whether it likes it or not.