France approves gay marriage after surprisingly violent debate

The French parliament voted to legalize gay marriage today, becoming the 14th country to do so. But France's road to marriage equality has been surprisingly divisive, bitter, and even bloody.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
French gendarmes in riot gear stand guard as gay marriage opponents shout slogans after a protest march in Paris Sunday against France's planned legalization of same-sex marriage. The French parliament approved the legislation today.

France became the 14th country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage today, fulfilling the campaign pledge of Socialist President François Hollande.

But if Mr. Hollande thought passage of the law would be easy in this secular nation, the road to marriage equality has been surprisingly divisive and bitter, even shockingly violent at points.

For months, demonstrators protesting the bill have amassed in the streets of Paris – one protest was the largest gathering mobilized around a social issue in nearly 30 years.

Since then, extremists have joined the fray. Riot police with tear gas stood on guard at nightly protests in the week leading up to the vote, with dozens of arrests made. Politicians have brawled, and one who supports gay marriage even received a death threat. According to gay rights activists, reports of homophobic incidents have tripled during the six-month battle.

That a swath of the population is protesting the issue is not surprising. Conservatives, here and across the Western world, have protested so-called "culture war" issues since the 1970s. But the scope and scale, tinged with hate, is what has caught France off-guard, says Jean-Yves Camus, a political researcher at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. “It’s much more strident than expected.”

He and other analysts say that the battle here does not necessarily reflect a society that overall is less supportive of the rights of homosexuals than other European countries, where gay marriage has been less controversially adopted.

Rather, the heated debate has merged with a general discontentment with Hollande – who faces record low approval ratings – turning the issue into a political rally of sorts against his Socialist administration. Some in the opposition are calling it the “French Spring.”

The vote in France comes just days after New Zealand legalized gay marriage. Today, 14 countries have legislated the right for homosexuals to marry, and of those, more than half are in Europe. In 2001, The Netherlands became the very first country to allow gay marriage, followed mostly by other northern European countries.

A new ugliness

The issue is divisive almost everywhere, but even in predominantly Catholic Spain, which legalized gay marriage in 2005, the protest was devoid of the ugliness that has marred the debate in France.

“Here it was contentious, there was a lot of hate on the street, but there was not blood,” says Boti Garcia Rodrigo, the president of Spain's Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals, and Bisexuals (FELGTB). She attributes that in large part to the campaign their federation ran, framing the issue as one exclusively of equality for all.

In France, there has been blood. Recently there were attacks in gay bars in Lille and Bordeaux. One man who was beaten up in Paris while walking with his partner posted a photo of himself on Facebook afterwards, battered and bruised, declaring it the “Face of Homophobia.”

“What is remarkable is that we see that the far right is very present,” says Mathieu Nocent, a spokesman in Paris for Inter-LGBT, an umbrella organization of French LGBT groups. “We’ve known for a long time that small, far right groups are against abortion, and immigrants … but we did not anticipate that they would use gay marriage as another subject for fighting.”

The anti-gay marriage protesters, which include France’s center-right party, the far right, and religious leaders from Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities, have deplored the violent actions of radicals. They say theirs is a legitimate fight, not of hate but of preserving traditional family values.

Opinion polls show that almost two-thirds of the French public support gay marriage. The latest BVA survey shows 58 percent of respondents voicing support for the right of homosexuals to marry (though a slight majority, 53 percent, opposes adoption by gay couples).

Politics, not culture?

Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist and president of the Foundation House of the Sciences of Man, says that French society is not more conservative than other countries. Rather, the debate has converged with politics and economics, causing a spiral on the streets.

Those on the right, but increasingly of all political stripes, are questioning the legitimacy of the Hollande administration, says Mr. Wieviorka, so the strikes have become just as much a criticism of the president as of the issue at hand. There is a general sense of insecurity as the country faces a looming, long-term economic crisis, and the debate emerged just as the right was seeking a consensus issue, after it fractured in the wake of former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s lost bid for re-election.

“I would say France is less conservative than many other countries. The problem is this conjunction of factors, which does not exist in other countries,” Wieviorka says.

Still, the Socialist majority in parliament easily pushed the legislation through, 331 to 225, stirring envy on the other side of the Atlantic. Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom to Marry in New York, says the attacks have been abhorrent, but they don’t reflect the sentiments of the French public and will do nothing to turn back the law.

“I think overall the battle has been much more challenging and difficult and incomplete [in the US],” he says. “The Socialists campaigned on a pledge to end exclusion, won a resounding victory, and the political branches are doing what the people elected them to do.”

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