Oui, marriage pour tous

June 26, 2013

The French right is exploiting the issue of same-sex marriage, explains Jonah Birch.

THE CITY of Montpellier was the site of France's first same-sex wedding ceremony on May 29, one week after President François Hollande signed legislation making France the 14th country in the world to legalize marriage equality nationwide.

Final passage of the Taubira Bill, named after Hollande's Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, the government's chief parliamentary spokesperson for the proposal, followed months of parliamentary wrangling and a final vetting of the bill by France's constitutional court.

For Hollande, whose "marriage pour tous" (marriage for all) initiative was the basis for the equal marriage law, its promulgation fulfilled an election promise he made during his successful campaign last year. In addition to civil marriage rights, the legislation also allows LGBT couples to adopt children for the first time.

The implementation of "marriage pour tous" represents a rare political victory for the president. Elected by a solid margin over center-right incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy only a year ago, Hollande's poll numbers began to drop almost as soon as he took office. Driven by the new government's failure to deal with France's crumbling economy and chronically high rates of joblessness, the Socialist Party president's popularity has continued to decline throughout the first months of his term.

Anti-equality bigots on the march through Paris
Anti-equality bigots on the march through Paris (Gwenael Piaser)

In particular, Hollande's pursuit of neoliberal economic reforms alienated the left-wing segments of his supporter base, and in recent days, poll data show the president's approval rating dipping to a record low--almost three-quarters of the public believe that his job performance has been poor.

The Taubira Bill potentially gives Hollande a tangible achievement to point to, especially in the face of the left's disenchantment and the challenge of the more radical Front de Gauche, under the leadership of Jean-Luc Melenchon, fourth-place finisher in the recent presidential election.

Yet in many ways, the central story of the past few months has been the enormous right-wing backlash against Hollande's proposals, which few observers could have predicted.

The government's ability to assemble a parliamentary majority behind "marriage pour tous" was never in doubt, because Hollande's Socialist Party and its allies control both houses of French parliament. But the proposal for "marriage pour tous" has--since late last year, when the bill was first introduced--provided the occasion for some of the largest right-wing protests in France in decades.

THE PAST six months witnessed four mass demonstrations in Paris against the proposal, including one in January that attracted more than 400,000 by some estimates and another that brought out 150,000 on May 26 after passage of the Taubira Bill. Opponents of "marriage pour tous" also held large protests in other cities across France.

On a daily basis, there were many smaller events and symbolic actions taking place across the country. These included publicity-grabbing stunts, like the disruption of the men's final at the French Open tennis tournament, which helped secure extensive media coverage for the anti-marriage equality movement. Most dramatically of all, in late May, a well-known historian long associated with the far right shot himself to death inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris to protest the passage of the Taubira Bill.

These right-wing counter-mobilizations held under the rubric of the umbrella group "la Manif pour tous" (meaning "demo for all," a play on Hollande's "marriage for all") attracted a disparate array of right-wing forces. Notable, of course, was the presence of an array of reactionary Catholic organizations--unsurprising in a traditionally Catholic country in which the church has historically been associated with the most anti-democratic currents on the far right.

Indeed, from early on, the Catholic hierarchy played a key role in lending its influence and organizational muscle to "Manif pour tous," and it was subsequently joined by leading religious bodies representing Jews, Muslims, Protestants and other groups.

And yet it would be a mistake to assume that the protests were simply a front for conservative religious institutions. In fact, one of surprising features of the protests was their success in garnering broad-based support from outside the ranks of France's remaining Catholic loyalists--a gradually dwindling number in a country in which regular church attendance has been falling for years. In fact, participants in the protests came from every section of the right, including many with no specific organizational affiliation.

"Manif pour tous" attracted the backing of more secular elements as well as religious institutions--activists associated with the fascist fringes of the French right, such as the Bloc Identitaire, as well as prominent political officials drawn from the mainstream UMP (the French acronym for the Union for a Popular Movement, the party of former President Sarkozy). Thus, UMP head Jean-Francois Cope was an early supporter of the protests.

The leaders of "Manif pour tous"--most prominently, a comedian who goes by the stage name Frigide Barjot--sought to cultivate this broad appeal by avoiding open expressions of bigotry and violent encounters with police and marriage-equality proponents. Barjot insisted that she herself backed equal treatment for LGBT relationships through an expansion of civil unions. Civil unions have existed in France since 1999, but they are mostly used by straight couples.

Right-wingers placed particular emphasis on the more contentious equal-adoption provisions of the legislation. This, they said, was antithetical to the requirements of "filiation"--the allegedly natural attachment of every child to two parents, one man and one woman.

Yet as the movement picked up steam, it also radicalized: violence at protests began to increase, and by April, demonstrations were regularly ending in mass arrests.

Eventually, the more intransigent figures within "Manif pour tous" split off to form a more extreme umbrella group "Printemps Français" (French Spring). By the time of the May 26 protest, which was marshaled by thousands of riot police, Barjot was reporting that she had been physically threatened by people who saw her as insufficiently militant.

ONE REASON the scope and virulence of the anti-marriage mobilizations caught so many by surprise was that, for the last decade, a clear majority in France has favored same-sex marriage. Early last fall, polls were reporting more than 60 percent support for equal-marriage rights.

While backing for LGBT adoption was less decisive, polls showed that roughly half of the French population favored equal adoption, a number that remained fairly stable for several years. But the appearance of "Manif pour tous," according to polls, succeeded in substantially lowering both figures, though since May, support for marriage equality has crept back up to a majority again.

Meanwhile, the last few months have been marked by a major uptick in homophobic violence all over the country. LGBT people have been beaten in sometimes-brazen attacks, and LGBT bars have also come under assault. The rising tide of anti-LGBT bigotry and violence has led equal rights activists to respond with intensified organizing of their own: as the passage of "marriage pour tous" drew nearer, the pro-equality demonstrations against the mass protests of the right increased.

At this point, it appears unlikely that the right will begin a serious push for repeal of the law. Even most of those who backed the counter-protests think now that marriage equality has been instituted, it should remain on the books, even if the UMP returns to power in the next election.

But the events of the past few months have exposed deep fissures in French society. Deep reservoirs of bigotry mark French society, evident in the impossible-to-ignore homophobia that pervaded the demos. But given the French public's well-known acceptance of non-traditional relationships, proclamations of concern over "filiation" are hard to take seriously.

Nevertheless, the "moderate" Barjot couldn't help but express her fears in the most dramatic tones. The government, Barjot insisted, was not merely implementing a law, but challenging the very foundations of French "civilization."

This notion of a "civilizational threat" has been something of a theme for the right during the protests, representing an attempt to frame "marriage pour tous" not as an attack on religious moral authority, but as a destructive imposition on French social and cultural identity that will set in motion a train of frightening changes.

This framing allowed the French far right to fuse its opposition to equal-marriage rights with its embrace of the doctrine of "laicite," or "secularism"--which they increasingly treat as a core feature of France's distinct national identity to be wielded as a weapon against the targets of their vitriol, particularly non-European immigrants and Muslims.

So while the anti-immigrant right may sometimes pose as defenders of sexual freedom and gender parity against the "backward Muslim hoards invading Europe," the idea of French civilization under existential cultural assault also allows it to oppose equal marriage on the basis that it might somehow precipitate the introduction of an Islamic legal and cultural order.

Thus, Marine Le Pen, head of the far right French National Front and third-place finisher in last year's presidential election with almost 18 percent of the vote, said of gay marriage:

Why not authorize polygamy! There are polygamous families, so why is it that tomorrow a number of politico-religious groups will not ask that polygamy--under the guise of equal rights--is enshrined in the French Civil Code?...Well, that's another civilization.

But it's important to note that such targeting of the LGBT community as a "civilizational threat" has largely succeeded due to the widespread disgust at the Hollande government. The entire thrust of Hollande's neoliberal trajectory allows the far right to pose as the protectors of collective interests and identities--now understood in terms of the French nation, instead of, for instance, class.

While Hollande offers an increasingly liberalized global market economy with guarantees for equal individual rights, the right is able to mobilize on a populist basis by railing against the supposed alliance of international cultural and financial elites, immigrants and other groups purportedly favored by cosmopolitan liberals. It is in that sense that the French right is able to appropriate the symbols of other popular movements--such as its use of the term "French Spring" or the prominence of references to the French Revolution.

For the left, the challenge is to defend the marriage equality without reducing that to a defense of the unpopular Hollande government. To succeed at this, a genuine left response must link anger at oppression and inequality with a strategy for forging the collective interest of class solidarity in place of French national identity.

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