French Bill set to pass after long and bitter debate

Mon, Feb 11, 2013, 00:00

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.

Tough debate

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.”

The backlash in turn provoked a reaction from the left. With the scale of opposition becoming clear, the government shelved plans to include medically assisted procreation in the law; it now says that will form part of a separate Bill later in the year. Hollande’s reluctance to take a lead role in championing his reform, and the government’s willingness to drop the artificial insemination plan, prompted Noël Mamère, a prominent Green politician, to accuse the Élysée Palace of “capitulation”.

Others on the left have accused the church of overstepping its role and breaching the ground rules of la laïcité, France’s secular model. Abbé Grosjean dismisses the criticism. “This accusation comes up every time, but never from the same side. When the French bishops questioned Nicolas Sarkozy on his immigration policy and the Roma, everyone on the left applauded the bishops for what was an intervention on a socio-political issue,” he says.

Crisis for Catholicism

The church’s intervention has attracted special attention because this is, by some measures at least, a time of crisis for Catholicism in France. Weekly Mass attendance has declined from 30 per cent in the 1950s to about 2 per cent today. Moreover, France is a tolerant place when it comes to private family choices. Half of all marriages end in divorce, and a civil marriage contract introduced for all couples in 1999 is popular and uncontroversial.

So why has the church become more assertive in politics? Portier says the shift is due partly to the rise of a generation of church leaders strongly attached to the language of natural rights and the church’s social doctrine. Alongside this trend, a large part of the French right has “re-Christianised” its message, stressing the place of religion in French culture and defending the church’s position more strongly than it did in the 1970s and 80s. Sarkozy raised eyebrows in 2007, for example, when he said that laïcité “doesn’t have the power to cut France from its Christian roots”.

Values

Behind the success of the church’s intervention was a large audience receptive to its language – an audience political leaders in Paris tend to underestimate, Portier believes. “You have a whole series of surveys on values since the 1990s which showed that, year after year, people’s behaviour was opening up more and more to cultural and moral liberalism,” he says.

“It’s a trend that exists in French society, but not the only one . . . When there is a hyper-secularisation on one side of society, there rises a hyper-identity on the other side, because it’s panicked by the disappearance of its values.”

For all the opposition’s strength, however, the passage of the Bill was never in doubt. Left-wing support for what the government terms a matter of “historic progress” has held firm, and the new law will give Hollande a badly needed triumph to cheer progressives.