A case in point: gay marriage. This is a hotly debated topic in both the U.S. and France. The fundamental issues are very similar but the contexts are different. In the U.S. it is a state by state battle for the most part with different legislation depending on the region. Some U.S. states outright prohibit same -sex unions while others allow civil unions but not marriage and finally there are a few states that now permit same-sex marriage on the same terms as heterosexual couples.
So what is the situation in France? Unlike the U.S. marriage law is not the domain of regional government - a département in France simply does not have the same autonomy as a state and does not have the authority to vote the marriage laws it likes. So the debate over marriage laws is one for the national (not local) government.
Another important difference is who has the authority to preside over a legal and binding marriage. In the U.S. states permit religious representatives (rabbis, priests and others) to legally marry a couple. This means that a church wedding is legal and binding in the U.S. This not true in France. In France the only marriage that counts is the one in the mayor's office. This means that legal marriage in France is already divorced from religion. You can still get married in the church or the temple or the synagogue but that is a purely private matter.
French national law as it stands today recognizes same-sex unions under a regime called the PACS (un pacte civil de solidarité) but does not permit same-sex couples to marry. Does that make a difference? Well, yes, it does. The PACS was progress but it does not confer the same rights as marriage and while heterosexual couples have a choice between marriage or the PACS, same-sex couples can only have their union recognized under the latter. For some very interesting statistics about PACS unions see this INSEE report. They say that only 6% of PACS unions involve same-sex couples.
Francois Hollande, the new French president, vowed during his campaign to change this and make marriage accessible to same-sex couples. There is a "projet de loi" to that effect making its way to the Assembly this week. The law is called "le mariage et l'adoption pour tous" (marriage and adoption for everyone). The Socialists are essentially killing two controversial birds with one stone here by attempting to make both gay marriage and gay adoption legal.
So how is that playing with the French public? The polls show that there is a clear majority in favor of gay marriage: 58% in favor and only 41% against. Support for marriage equality however does not necessarily translate into support for gay adoption - the French are split 50/50 for and against.
I would not pretend that the people I know here are representative of the entire French nation but the polls seem to accurately reflect the views they have shared with me. The idea of gay marriage does not seem to bother most of my friends all that much - it just seems fair to them that gays should be able to make the same legal unions as straight people. Where they get reticent is when it comes down to a gay couple creating a family through adoption - a situation where the non-biological parent would have rights and parental authority over a minor child.
And now the Church is getting involved. The Cardinal/Archbishop of Paris André Vingt-Trois came out against the law recently and that seems to have been a signal that the Church is mobilizing. Yesterday I went to Mass and the priest made the Church's position on the matter crystal clear: against homophobia and against gay marriage. I found at least one point in his sermon rather intriguing - he said that while many French seem to think that the Protestant Christians are much cooler than the Catholics in matters related to sex (Is that really true? Do the French really think that?) even French Protestants are against the law. Turns out that he was right - the president of the Fédération protestante de France, the pastor Claude Baty, came out against the law as well as representatives of the Moslem and Jewish faiths in France.
The appeal from the pulpit this weekend was a call to arms against the law. The Cardinal is asking Catholics to send letters to, and to put pressure on, lawmakers. He is also encouraging Christians and other like-minded denominations to hold public demonstrations against the law though he denies that he or the Church is getting directly involved in politics:
(It is the responsibility of the associations and movements to discern if they should act in this regard, said the Archbishop of Paris. I am not responsible for a political movement. I am responsible for a Church. My role is not to lead a political action. It is to awaken consciences and to alert my fellow citizens.)
I strongly suspect that there will be demonstrations over the "mariage pour tous." Will this prevent the law from being passed? No idea but I do think it's going to be a very bitter fight. This is one to watch very closely. The Catholic Church in France usually prefers (as nearly as I can tell) to work behind the scenes but every once in awhile she takes a very public stand and roars. This may be one of those times.