If you’re British and young and well educated – a statistically safe assumption if you’re reading this article – then you probably see no compelling reason to deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry. Odds also have it that your grandparents disagree with you. The poll numbers tell a clear story: according to a 2012 poll by ICM and the Sunday Telegraph, 82% of Britons aged 18–24 either favour or do not definitely oppose legalisation of same-sex marriage, but this widespread support morphs into solid opposition as you climb the demographic ladder – 58% of those older than 65 oppose it.
The political debate surrounding same-sex marriage in the Anglo-Saxon countries has largely held to this narrative of generational shift. Extending the right to marry to same-sex couples is presented by advocates as a progressive and logical decision, the registering in law of a view that is gradually becoming hegemonic; that the love of gay and lesbian partners is just as legitimate as love between heterosexuals. Within this discourse, it is the prejudiced whose social attitudes haven’t changed since the 1950s who uphold the unequal status quo, while young, passionate activists file into the streets, circulate petitions, run campaigns, all for the sake of securing for a marginalised group a civil right too long denied.
One would have thought that in France, a modern, proudly secular republic that literally has “égalité” at the heart of its national credo, the debate would have followed a similar trajectory. Instead, the gay marriage question has become a major political and social flashpoint. Since the bill proposing legalisation of marriage and adoption for same-sex couples was introduced last November, the country has seen huge opposition protest marches drawing hundreds of thousands, outbreaks of vicious anti-gay violence, ugly scuffles in parliamentary chambers, kneeling “pray-ins” on the streets outside both houses of parliament, cries of “dictatorship” against the government, and a chilling promise from the otherwise clownish spokeswoman of the anti-gay-families movement, Frigide Barjot, that if President Hollande “wants blood,” then “he’ll have it”.
What might explain this stark contrast in tone? Well, for one thing, the Catholic Church in France still occupies an important place in the lives of many millions of French people and their communities. And as Le Monde recently revealed, the opposition to the same sex marriage bill is overwhelmingly directed and funded by the Church and organisations closely affiliated with it. Importantly, loyalty to the Church in France is often associated with elevated social standing—it’s no coincidence that many of the bigger opposition marches in Paris have flowed into the city centre directly from the posh quartiers of Neuilly and the 16e arrondissement. Having a broad-based network of like-minded card-carrying members of the establishment running a social movement naturally has its advantages : funding and media attention are easily taken care of.
But another possible factor is philosophical. In French society, consequentialism, the idea that the moral value of actions should be judged according to their concrete effects rather than by some other standard, just doesn’t hold as much sway as it does in Anglo-Saxon countries. The no-fuss liberal refrain that “gay marriage doesn’t harm anyone” is, at its core, a consequentialist moral judgement. Yet the French philosophical tradition continues to privilege Descartes and Plato over Mill and Bentham, and this finds expression in the way people think through moral issues. The idea of a well-defined “natural order of things” has wide currency: it isn’t uncommon to hear French people say that same-sex unions are “unnatural”. This is summoned as support for the argument that children raised by same-sex couples will necessarily be worse off than those raise by straight couples. A cursory look at the research on the subject suffices to show that this claim is simply anti-gay prejudice – in a recent brief to the US Supreme Court, the American Sociological Association pointed to “a clear and consistent consensus” within the social sciences that children raised by two parents of the same sex “fare just as well” as those raised by opposite-sex parents. And yet the concern persists, to the extent that, according to most polls, a majority of French citizens reject the right of same-sex couples to adopt children, let alone to conceive them through “unnatural” medical means.
Electoral politics may also play a role in the strength of the anti-gay-families movement. Like any parliamentary party, the opposition UMP of former president Nicolas Sarkozy sees in the Church-led protest movement a welcome opportunity to score political points. By siding with the powerful antis, they hope to encourage a remise en question of the presidency of the already unpopular Socialist Hollande. At the same time, nothing politicises the young quite like an emotive social issue, framed as a threat to the survival of civilisation, and embroidered with sharp imagery, chants and slogans. It’s safe to assume that some of tomorrow’s right-wing députés and voters will have “found” their politics in the streets of Paris on the 24th of March, 2013.
The right-wing anti-gay-families movement in France has proliferated in part because it has no solid political counterforce. The French left, which might have been expected to rally support for the new marriage equality law, views marriage as problematic in itself. In France, marriage is as much a contract between a couple and the state as it is between individual partners. Before any religious ceremony may take place, French couples must be married first in their local Town Hall. At the ceremony, an officer of the state reads the relevant articles of the civil code, which must be formally accepted by both partners, and which impose on them certain legal obligations. And so, while in the US or the UK progressive groups campaign for marriage equality, the generally more radical French left is lukewarm in its support, seeing marriage as a means of inculcating bourgeois values and loyalty to the state.
Whatever explains France’s anti-gay-families movement, it has failed, for now at least. And if the experience of other countries is anything to go by, now that same-sex marriage is legal, the vociferous opposition will quiet down and die out, and the new, more equitable social order will survive. But in the rage and radicalisation inspired by, or at least stoked in the name of opposition to gay family rights in France, there may lurk the sparks of a virulently intolerant flame which, had the opposition been less loud, might have died out on its own. Let’s hope that the daily experience of living on equal terms with same-sex spouses and parents will be enough to quell the flames of prejudice in France in the future.