PARIS – Gay marriage may have passed with barely a hitch in many countries, but it has kicked up a huge storm in France, a country often seen as the champion of secularism and notoriously relaxed on issues pertaining to private life.
Smelling blood after a bruising first year for President Francois Hollande, rightwing leaders have mobilized a fierce campaign.
However, sociologists argue that France’s social fabric and identity crisis also help explain the ferocity of the debate.
The cheers and Maori love song that greeted the legalization of same-sex union in New Zealand’s Parliament on Thursday were in stark contrast to the escalating rage a similar bill is causing in France.
Lawmakers in the National Assembly nearly came to blows last week, gay activists have reported a rise in attacks on homosexuals and millions of people have taken to the streets to declare their opposition to the bill, vowing to fight to the bitter end.
The divisions over gay marriage in France follow political lines, and the opposition has united against the bill, seizing an opportunity to pile pressure on an already embattled administration. “It was the first chance for the rightwing electorate to express their opposition to Francois Hollande’s presidency and (Prime Minister) Jean-Marc Ayrault’s government,” political analyst Jean-Yves Camus said.
After former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s failed re-election bid left France’s mainstream right in tatters, the opportunity was threefold for his UMP party, Camus said. “It is now an opposition party and needs fresh momentum. The negative social and economic context favors the spread of discontent, and the president’s ratings are abysmal,” he said.
The new law is expected to pass Tuesday, which will make France the world’s 14th country to legalize same-sex unions.
Robert Rochefort, a sociologist and centrist member of the European Parliament, stressed that the furor offers the latest evidence that French society is insecure. “I think gay marriage is the course of history and will come about in all Western nations . . . but (French) society is cornered by its own fears,” he said.
The issue of national identity was a centerpiece of Sarkozy’s tenure and of his failed re-election campaign and many in France’s ever-growing far-right electorate hope to rekindle the debate. While the state is fiercely secular, the gay marriage bill showed that a significant section of French society remains staunchly Catholic and conservative.
Opinion polls have routinely indicated that while a majority of French people support gay marriage, a slight majority opposes adoption rights for homosexual couples.
“It was clumsy of the government to initially suggest that the bill would also legalize medically assisted procreation” for homosexual couples, said Michel Wievorka, one of France’s most renowned sociologists.
Camus argued that the fervor the issue has stirred up in France was “the legacy of a past that still excites passions more than two centuries after the dawn of the republic.”
The separation between church and state was a blood-drenched affair in France — and two centuries on, the divisions still remain, Camus argued.