France Asks 'What Is a Family?'

New legislation offers legal rights and benefits to unwed couples

Annick Ravi and her mother share a striking resemblance - down to their quiet, slightly mischievous Mona Lisa smiles. But their differences are equally striking.

Take their attitudes on marriage. Annick, an esthetician in her late 20s, wants to have children with her long-term boyfriend, but says she feels no need to get married. It's a stance her Roman Catholic mother has difficulty understanding.

These days, the Ravis' generational divide is playing itself out across France, as in the rest of Western Europe and the United States. But the French are breaking new legal ground in dealing with changing notions of the family.

Divorce is on the rise, as is the number of single-parent families. More unmarried couples are living together, and more people approve.

The result is a radically different society than from a generation ago, a change the French government is acknowledging with new legislation that would give unprecedented legal rights and benefits to unmarried couples. But the plan has provoked strong resistance from some, who feel it would weaken France's social fabric. It has also raised difficult questions about who and what constitutes a family.

"The nature of family is changing," says sociologist Eric Fassin. "When you have a revolution of gender relations as massive as it's been in this country and others - contraception, women in the workplace - it's not surprising."

The government's reaction to these changes is a bill called the Contract of Social and Civil Union. If passed, the CUCS would give couples like Annick and her boyfriend many of the perks that married couples enjoy. Once they register their relationship, they would receive the same tax breaks, become eligible for joint pension and insurance benefits, and fall under the same inheritance laws that govern married partners.

Conservatives argue that the CUCS will further weaken the already fragile institution of marriage.

"There's too much freedom," laments Fahti Ben Maamar, a Parisian shopkeeper of Tunisian descent. "And so family values are suffering."

His attitudes on family are more conservative than the younger generation's, he says, but for good reason.

"When families are unsettled, and there's only one parent who can't be at home all the time, you lose social values," Mr. Ben Maamar says. "The children become more delinquent. They are the real victims."

Conservatives also worry about what the contract doesn't do. Because it doesn't define a couple beyond "two people," in theory it could apply to couples of the same sex as much as to those of the opposite sex.

The contract's open-ended language is simply the logical result of republicanism, say its defenders, part of the libert, galit, fraternit the French strive for.

But to critics like sociologist Irne Thry, it is largely about homosexual marriage. And while she defends the right of homosexuals to have a legal union, she argues that the CUCS's failure to distinguish between types of couples opens a Pandora's box of complicated social issues.

"Marriage is not an institution of couples," she argues, "it's the institution that links the different sexes and different generations."

Maintaining a distinction in the CUCS between straight and gay couples "isn't discrimination," Ms. Thry says. "It's a way of preserving a cultural norm and of recognizing the incontrovertible fact that each sex needs the other ... to reproduce."

That is not entirely true - adoption and new technology make children possible for any type of couple - and the CUCS's complete silence on the subject represents a ticking time bomb for critics like Thry.

But if the CUCS dredged up these issues, it was only a matter of time, says Mr. Fassin. "Technology has cut the link between sexuality and reproduction," he says. "If a family doesn't necessarily mean sex linked to reproduction and children anymore ... it raises all kinds of questions about what a family is."

Academics and politicians have traded acid barbs over the contract - this is the third draft in five years - but the most striking aspect of the debate has been the vast public silence. Some, like Fassin, attribute this to the contract's neutral language, which doesn't raise charged issues of sexuality.

But to Ms. Ravi and her co-workers gathered around a counter for a break, the lack of fuss about the CUCS is not because the French, who relish a meaty political debate, are unaware of the issues. They argue that people are simply ready to accept these changes.

"Marriage isn't so necessary anymore, though there are legal benefits and I think people still like that security," says Ravi. "But the gay issue isn't really even an issue; there are lots of gay people who already have children."

The figures support her claim of increasing social tolerance. More than 90 percent of French adults think it is morally acceptable to have a baby outside of marriage, a Gallup poll found this year. In the US, the figure was 50 percent.

Even so, there are signs of discontent with the current trends.

France's divorce rate has tripled since 1973, to 1 in 3 marriages, lower than the US rate of nearly 1 in 2. But an October poll by the French magazine Paris Match found that 72 percent of those surveyed think a divorce is too easy to get.

They favor legislation similar to what the state of Louisiana has done in the US. Last August, Louisiana began offering couples the option of a "covenant marriage" requiring premarital counseling and imposing strict guidelines on divorce.

Still, the traditional models continue to disintegrate. The number of unmarried couples here has increased ninefold since 1960, and the number of single-parent families has steadily climbed from 9.3 percent in 1968 to 13 percent today, according to the National Institute of Statistics. And French pollster Sofrs has recorded a steadily rising acceptance of homosexuality.

Like Fassin, Ravi credits contraception and technology for some social shifts, but adds that there is another difference between her generation and her mother's: the waning influence of the church. Though France is a mainly Catholic country, just 12 percent of the French regularly fill the Sunday pews.

And last year, 65 percent of Catholics told French pollster CSA they disapproved of the pope's attitudes on personal morality and sexuality, a 30 percent rise from seven years ago. "People don't care that much about strict social rules anymore," says Ravi's colleague Cecile Viroli.

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