Campaigner against gay marriage in France kills himself in Notre Dame

The protests against the legalization of same-sex marriage in France has been surprisingly passionate and may have included yesterday's suicide in the symbolic heart of French Catholicism.

Thibault Camus/AP
Tourists take pictures as police officers stand guard in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, in Paris, Tuesday. Notre Dame has been evacuated after a man committed suicide in the 850-year-old monument and tourist attraction.

When French President François Hollande set out to legalize gay marriage, he faced an unexpectedly virulent outcry. Protests, including one that was the largest of its kind in 30 years, drew religious leaders, conservatives fighting for the preservation of family values, and those simply looking for a way to express their discontent with the president. 

There were attacks at gay bars and clashes between protesters and police. One image, of a man who’d been beaten up while walking with his partner on the streets of Paris, went viral when it was posted on Facebook as the “Face of Homophobia.” 

Now that gay marriage has become law – President Hollande signed the act last weekend and the nation’s first gay marriage is expected to take place later this month – has the violent debate reached new levels of drama? 

On Tuesday afternoon, just days ahead of major protests against gay marriage scheduled for May 26, a far-right French historian walked into Paris’s famed Notre Dame Cathedral, reportedly walked up to the altar, and turned a gun on himself. He pulled the trigger in front of approximately 1,500 tourists. 

It is unclear what exactly his motive was. He is said to have left a letter at the scene that has not yet been made public. But the words and statements that have emerged since yesterday’s event point to a planned and public condemnation of gay marriage, immigration, and other topics considered by the far right as a threat to French society.

On his personal blog the historian, Dominique Venner, condemned the “vile” gay marriage law, in a piece dated May 21, the day of his suicide. He called on protesters planning to amass on May 26 not to limit their discontent to just the law but against the “peril” of immigration to France from North Africa.

In what may have been a reference to his impending suicide, he wrote: "There will certainly need to be new, spectacular, symbolic gestures to shake off the sleepiness ... and re-awaken the memories of our origins." 

Hours after the suicide, a message apparently written by Mr. Venner was read by a friend on a conservative radio station: "I believe it is necessary to sacrifice myself to break with the lethargy that is overwhelming us," the friend read on the air. "I am killing myself to awaken slumbering consciences." 

France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has risen in polls, wrote in a tweet Tuesday of her respect for Venner, calling his suicide "eminently political." 

Notre Dame – the symbol of French Catholicism – was quickly evacuated. The cathedral this year marks 850 years since construction began – but commemorative events celebrating the anniversary will likely be overshadowed, in history, by Venner’s action.

France’s Interior Minister Manuel Valls told reporters: "Notre Dame is the cathedral of Paris, one of the capital's – and the country's – most beautiful monuments, so we realize how symbolic this event truly is."

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