French Bill set to pass after long and bitter debate
Protesters in Lyon protesting against the planned same-sex marriage Bill. photograph: robert pratta/reuters
Analysis:Successful campaigns have served to prompt renewed opposition to gay rights in some countries
It has provoked some of the biggest street demonstrations in decades, divided public opinion and proven so sensitive that the French parliament, its building surrounded by riot police, has held all-night sittings to work through more than 5,000 amendments tabled by the opposition.
When the debate comes to an end this week, the National Assembly is almost certain to pass a draft law allowing gay couples to marry, clearing the way for France to become the 12th country to extend marriage rights and giving François Hollande one of the landmark reforms of his presidency.
But it hasn’t been easy for the government, and the tougher-than-expected debate has shone a revealing light on how French society may – and may not – be changing. Most striking for the political class has been the reminder that, despite falling Mass attendances and France’s secular self-image, the Catholic Church remains a potent political force in the country.
The street campaign against the government’s plan was led by a colourfully eclectic ensemble whose chief spokespeople were a comedian and “anarchist of love” who goes by the pseudonym Frigide Barjot and a 21-year-old peroxide-blond gay activist. A march they held in Paris last month was the biggest conservative or right-wing protest in decades, attracting a turnout organisers estimated at a million (the police said it was closer to 340,000), many of whom travelled by coach and had never previously taken part in a demonstration. Supporters have also held mass rallies.
The Catholic Church has played a discreet but decisive role in the campaign, eschewing the directly confrontational posture the Spanish church adopted over gay marriage but taking a more active role than the bishops in Britain and Belgium on the same issue. The church in France has always taken positions on big social debates, notably on abortion in the mid-1970s and more recently on civil unions. “What changed here was that the church intervened with a lot more force than in the past. It toughened its discourse,” says Philippe Portier, a specialist on the Catholic Church at Sciences Po in Paris.
French bishops spoke out strongly and encouraged the demonstrations, while the church’s capacity to activate networks across the country and to bus protesters to Paris was seen as vital to the success of the movement.
Opinion polls show a majority of about 60 per cent in favour of gay marriage, but support for adoption by gay couples – the second element of the draft law – has been weaker, at between 45 and 50 per cent. Opponents focused on adoption, arguing that Hollande was “destroying the concept in law of mother and father”, and changing the essence of the family.
“If it concerns only the relationship between two adults, the French don’t see why they should oppose it,” says Abbé Pierre-Hervé Grosjean of the Versailles diocese, who has been one of the most prominent church figures in the debate. “But from the moment we managed to show that you couldn’t have marriage without opening the door to adoption and medically assisted procreation, attitudes shifted. Today, the majority of people are against adoption and medically assisted procreation.”