Support for gay marriage in France declines as government pushes bill

French President Hollande promised to legalize marriage and adoption for same-sex couples when he became president. But now that he's following through, the issue is becoming divisive.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters
A demonstrator holds a magazine cover as he gathers next to the National Assembly in Paris, Thursday, November 7. France's Socialist government approved a draft law to legalize marriage and adoption for same-sex couples on Wednesday, saying the reform under fire from religious leaders and conservative politicians meant progress for the whole society.

France’s government unveiled a bill Wednesday to legalize marriage and adoption for same-sex couples amid heated rhetoric and waning popular support for what appeared to be an uncontroversial issue just a few months ago.

French President François Hollande considers the bill to be a step toward equality and a symbol of progress for the whole society.

“The president obviously underscored that this bill was going to open a debate as we know, [and] that this debate is legitimate,” Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the government’s spokeswoman, said at a weekly press briefing, adding that debate “must be kept under control, it must be respectful of opinions and beliefs.”

The bill was presented during the government’s weekly meeting at the presidential palace and is expected to go to Parliament and become law next year. The legalization of marriage and adoption for gay couples was part of Hollande’s political platform during the presidential campaign earlier this year.

Analysts say that even though introducing the bill now might not be a good idea politically, the government has had no choice but to push it along in order not to look weak on this issue in the eyes of voters.

Céline Bracq, the associate director of the polling group BVA Opinion, says the French government is pushing the bill now because it wants to convince voters that it still has a left-wing and progressive agenda despite tough economic times. This strategy, however, could be counterproductive as the public wants the government to focus on economic issues rather than legalize marriage and adoption for gay couples now, she says.

“The idea of the government is to be able to send messages [to voters] on economic and welfare issues but also to send messages on social issues, which are issues that are associated with the left wing,” Ms. Bracq says. “Now, is this a good idea to do this so quickly? In terms of public opinion, probably not.” 

Heavy criticism

Though same-sex couples have had access to a form of civil union created in 1999 called Pacs, which stands for Pact of Civil Solidarity, the unveiling of the bill comes after a series of declarations by some mayors saying they would refuse to perform gay marriage ceremonies if the law was passed. The Catholic Church, which has had a historically influential role in France, is also heavily criticizing the government’s project.

The right-wing opposition UMP party has made it clear it will not support the bill.

Jean-Frédéric Poisson, a national lawmaker of the UMP party and the Christian-Democratic Party opposing the bill, has called for a national referendum on the issue and says the government has underestimated the bill’s potential for controversy.

“I believe the debate is starting to take off and the government probably didn’t imagine at the beginning of this operation that this debate would grow,” Mr. Poisson says. “It probably thought that it was a done deal, that the public opinion was, indeed, largely in favor of it and that no problem would be posed by this project. And that’s just not the case.”

Decline in approval for supporting gay rights

A Nov. 3 survey by BVA Opinion showed a sharp decline in the support for gay marriage and adoption among the population compared with 2011. However, a majority of those surveyed were still in favor of the measures.

The poll found 58 percent of those surveyed supported legalizing marriage for gay couples, down from 63 percent in 2011.

By contrast, the proportion of those against gay marriage went up from 33 percent in 2011 to 41 percent. Some 50 percent of respondents said they supported adoption for gay couples, while 47 percent of those surveyed said they opposed it. In 2011, 56 percent of those surveyed supported adoption for gay couples while 40 percent opposed it.

Weeks of rallies...

More than 1,000 supporters of the bill gathered Wednesday evening near the National Assembly, France’s lower chamber of Parliament, holding banners demanding equality between straight and gay couples. The participants formed a rope made of children's clothes on the public square where they gathered. They raised their arms and held the clothes above their heads to signify that the children of gay couples are so far invisible in the eyes of law.

“What do you want?” shouted an organizer to the protesters, who shouted back, “Equality!”

“When do you want it?” the organizer then asked. “Now!” the crowd responded.

Marie-Claude Picardat, the co-president of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Parents and Future Parents, says her group is “extremely happy, extremely moved” by the unveiling of the bill but she wishes the government would add more measures, such as medically assisted procreation – including artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization – for lesbian couples.

“Our disappointment, however, is extremely strong because a law of this kind will not allow a real recognition of gay families with children,” Ms. Picardat told the Monitor at the rally. “It will not facilitate the constitution of families, and it doesn’t allow, in spite of everything, a strict equality between gay and straight people.”

Caroline Gallais, a humanitarian worker from Paris, says she attended the rally “to defend my right to marry the woman I love and have children with her.”

Pro-life group Alliance Vita held several demonstrations against marriage and adoption for gay people across France on Oct. 23, with over 700 people attending a rally in Paris’ business district La Défense.

... and protests

At the heart of the anti-equality protests, which included choreographed skits, the message was clear: A child should be raised by both a mother and a father.

Women dressed in white sat on one side and men dressed in black sat on the other in a large public square. Many held a pink banner reading; “A Dad. A Mom. You don’t lie to children.” An actor wearing a full-length grey bodysuit and holding a green cardboard wing labeled “Dad” in his right hand and a pink wing labeled “Mom” in his left one, stumbled down the aisle between seated women and men. The actor kept stumbling, as if he was going to collapse, but his pace grew steady as the group of men shouted “Mom!” and the women shouted “Dad!”

This choreography was repeated multiple times as the group’s delegate general Tugdual Derville warned the crowd against the dangers of gay marriage.

“Here is a bill that aims to disturb the father-mother balance inside the couple of parents even though you well know that this balance is the best structure offered to the child in order for him or her to grow up,” Mr. Derville said.

The bill is expected to pass next year because the Socialist Party has a majority of seats in both parliamentary chambers.

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