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Monday, November 5, 2012

Gay Marriage In France

One of the weirder stereotypes I've encountered in my Franco-American life is this idea that the French are super progressive and completely cool with everything to do with sex and the Americans are a bunch of homophobic puritans.  The truth is so much more complicated.

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:

"C'est la responsabilité des associations et des mouvements de savoir s'ils doivent agir ainsi, précise l'archevêque de Paris. Je ne suis pas responsable d'un mouvement politique. Je suis responsable d'une Église. Ma fonction n'est pas de mener l'action politique. Elle est d'éveiller les consciences et d'alerter mes concitoyens.»
(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. 


Christophe said...

I don't understand why this is such a big deal in both countries.
I like the separation they have in France between the civil marriage at the townhall, which defines the civil rights, and religious one at church.
Here's my take on it: we should all agree that hetero and same sex couples should have the same rights. Change the term "Marriage" to "Union" at the town hall for EVERYONE. That solves the human rights issue, and let hetero sexual couples get "married" at church, where marriage is really defined between a man and a woman.
Why can't it just be that easy...

CarnetsdeSeattle said...

Hi Christophe,

While I wholeheartedly agree with you, there is one problem with changing the name to "Union": it needs to be recognized by other countries. And The best bet for that, in my opinion, is that major counries like france and the US adopt same-sex marriage laws.

Just one remark, though. While this whole issue is very important for me for personal reasons, I find it kind of sad how it is used to distract us from the "real" economic issues.

And I'm not saying gay rights is not an issue. For me it is a very simple matter, it should be allowed, no fuss, somebody please take 5 minutes to sign this into Law, and it drives me mad that people try to thwart this.


Bigger picture, I think we have been thrown a bone to chew, while the crisis continues...

Berliniquais said...

How the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, an organisation that notoriously precludes women from playing hardly more than a passive role in mass and will not open even the lowest echelons of its hierarchy to "the fair sex", thus probably breaking a number of anti-discrimination laws in quite a few Western countries, can still enjoy even an ounce of credibility in such debates on equality in the French society in the 21st century, is completely beyond me.

Oh, we're a democracy all right (and became one in spite of the Church), enjoy free speech all right (still in spite of the Church), so the Church is very much welcome to make itself heard on the matter, for sure. But I don't know why we should bother listening to its opinion any more than we listen to the Association des Motards de France or the Amicale des Vieilles Soupapes on the topic.

Go Protestants! :-)

(For the record, I disagree with both Catholics and Protestants on the gay marriage issue, but at least the Protestants are, depressingly enough, by far the least hypocritical of the two, as always).

And I don't know whether Protestants are "cooler" than Catholics on matters of relationships and sex... Maybe it's a reputation they have because of their perceived "modernity" and because of the openness of the Anglican Church on homosexuality. But I don't know if it is so true in France.

Anonymous said...

Do you have any idea how many people are actually affected by gay marriage in France, Canada, US? Of the supposed 4 million gay people in the US, how many actually want to get married one day? 50,000? 100,000? or more?

If FATCA and FBAR got 1/10 the publicity gay marriage gets perhaps more of the 6 million people concerned would be aware of their situation.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

I love the Church and I listen when the bishops and archbishops speak out.

That said I am well aware that I had to get married TWICE in France (in the US it would have only been once and in a church). The civil marriage in France has nothing whatsoever to do with the religious one. So as far as I'm concerned civil marriage should be open to all (le mariage civil pour tous).

My .02 centimes. :-)

Anonymous said...

Good post, Victoria, but you forgot to mention that the main reason why this project is important in my opinion. Since my english is not so good, I will continue in french and you will be so kind to translate ;-)
Si le projet de loi passe (et il passera), cela permettra à des couples homosexuels qui élèvent des enfants ensemble, mais dont UN SEUL des membres exerce l'autorité parentale, de régulariser leur situation, câd de permetttre aux 2 parents d'être reconnus comme tels par la loi.
Aujourd'hui en France, il existe beaucoup de familles homoparentales, mais en cas de séparation ou de décès du partenaire qui est considéré par la loi comme le seul parent (en général c'est la mère biologique, mais cela peut être aussi la mère ou le père qui a adopté l'enfant légalement), alors l'autre partenaire n'a aucun droit sur l'enfant (ni autorité parentale, ni droit de visite, rien ...).
Par ailleurs, il faut aussi dire que la loi sur le mariage pour tous permettra aux couples homosexuels de se transmettre mutuellement leur patrimoine (en cas de décès notamment) ainsi qu'à leurs enfants.
De mon point de vue, c'est une bonne chose.
Quant à l'Eglise, elle n'a pas à intervenir dans le débat parlementaire, c'est certain (la loi sur la séparation de l'Eglise et de l'Etat est là pour cela), mais elle est une force de lobbying importante, et je considère qu'elle a parfaitement le droit de faire entendre sa voix dans les débats. Personnellement, je suis athée, mais je reste à l'écoute des discours des gens d'église, dans la mesure où leurs valeurs ont contribué aux fondements des sociétés judeo-chrétiennes que sont les notres.
Nice regards from Grasse,

Berliniquais said...

@ Anonymous from Nov 6 - According to many opponents to gay marriage, this issue affects us all. Because authorising gay marriage somewhat "cheapens" everybody else's marriages. Yes, I have heard stuff like that. Several times actually. But you are right to point out that this should not be an important topic, and it is simply used as a distraction to divert people's attention from much more important issues.

@ Victoria - I love the Church too... much in the same way I would fondly love a senile great-grandfather who, back in the day, would have been a loving but overbearing patriarch. I am thankful for every freedom we enjoy in Europe (and Western countries): most of these were wrested from religion. Indeed, I love Jesus first, and the Catholic Church comes a distant second. Maybe it is because I have experienced firsthand, for years on end, how much damage Catholic fundamentalism can wreak in people's daily lives, for all the "love" it is said to be about.

@ Cécile from Grasse - I like your balanced and reasonable approach to the place of the Church in society. Quite a few atheists are shrill and dismissive of the religion, and you do not sound like them at all. I wholeheartedly agree with your acknowledgement that the Church's values of today are still very close to our society's Judeo-Christian roots. But these values often come at odds with all the heritage of the Enlightenment, which significantly contributed in shaping all the individual and collective rights we enjoy today. But well, the Church is still a part of society, and should not be silenced just because we don't like what it has say (otherwise, what would be the point of having free speech?). Just that I don't always listen :-)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Cecile, And here is the translation of your comment.Let me know if I mis-translated something

"If the law passes (and it will pass) this will allow gay couples who are bringing up children together (but of whom only one can exercise parental authority) to regularize their situation. This means allowing both parents to be recognized as such under the law.

Today in France, there are many families with gay parents but in the event of a separation or the death of the partner considered by the law to be the only parent (in general this is the biological mother but can also be the mother or father who legally adopted the child) which leaves the other partner with no rights at all over the child (no parental authority, no visitation rights, nothing...)

In addition, it should be said that marriage for all law will allow gay couples to pass on their estates to each other (in the case of death) as well as to their children.

In my view this is a good thing. As for the Church, it's not her role to intervene in the parliamentary debate, that is clear (the law separating the Church and the State is there for that reason).

But she is an important lobby and I think she is perfectly within her rights to have her voice heard during the debates.

Personally I'm an atheist but I listen to the arguments of the church's people since their values have contributed to the foundation of judeo-christian societies like ours."

Cécile de Grasse

(Victoria Ferauge - Traduttore, tradittore)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Cecile, one additional remark from me concerning your excellent comment I hope this will also have a beneficial effect for mixed families with step-parents. There is something truly horrible about the way beloved step-parents in France can be simply expunged from a child's life in the case of death or divorce. I am the product of such a family in the US.

It is a great source of sorrow to me that most of the members of my French family here do not consider my step-father to be a legitimate parent (or my step-siblings to be "real" brothers and sisters) even though they have been in my life for over 30 years.

Anonymous said...

Excellent translation, my dear Victoria !
This law will actually change the Code Civil by introducing a new "article" in it, something like : "le mariage est contracté par 2 personnes de sexe différent ou de même sexe". Well, that's the easy part. No need to say that the Code Civil will have te be fully re-written, in order to delete all the oldfashioned terms such as "father" and "mother" and replace it with new words that will reflect the variety of families, and that's a huge amount of work !
Regarding the law, I have no idea if it will take into account the mixed families issues ...
Nice regards,

Dr Purva Pius said...
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