On 23 April France became the 14th country in the world to approve same-sex marriage or, as we like to call it, mariage pour tous (marriage for all). It was supposed to be a celebration, a wedding. But the truth is, it’s been a war.
France is no stranger to social tensions, of course, but as a result of this debate our country has just lived through one of the most traumatic moments of its recent history. Two Frances faced one another over the most significant social reform since the abolition of the death penalty in 1981.
And the violence of the clash surprised everyone. Even the government confessed to being “surprised by the virulence of the opposition” to the marriage and adoption law. A few months ago, no one would have predicted such a negative, nasty and damaging debate.
“I will open the right to get married and to adopt to homosexual couples,” that’s what François Hollande wrote in his presidential manifesto. And at the time, nobody seems to care that much. The economic situation seemed to be by far the most important public concern.
Introducing same-sex marriage in France was supposed to be straightforward. After all, a lot of countries had gone through the same process, before us: Belgium, Canada, Spain, Portugal. And all the opinion polls showed a large majority of French people (58%) favoured gay marriage, and 49% of us backed adoption by homosexual couples. But month after month, those numbers fell. What happened?
In fact everyone, from newly elected government to LGBT leaders, underestimated the power of conservative groups. Even if France is the country that invented laicité, our nation is still a mainly Catholic country. And the church stood very strongly against this bill.
In January 2013, when the debate started at the National Assembly, the consensus fell to pieces. The anti-gay movement found a new name – La Manif Pour Tous, or Protest For All. And from only a few thousand people in November demonstrating against the bill, the movement grew to 350,000, according to the police, a million according to the organisers, counting among its ranks some extreme right subgroups such as Groupe Union Défense, (GUD) and allowing everyone to see the different faces of homophobia in France.
In recent weeks, homophobic violence had risen with attacks on gay couples reported across the country. There’s no word to describe how shocked we were when we saw the blood-drenched faces of Wilfred de Bruijn and his boyfriend Olivier, beaten in homophobic attack in Paris just for walking together in the street. Then a group of skinheads attacked a gay bar in Lille.
And instead of calming the situation down, some of the members of the opposition party kindled the embers of hatred and intolerance with irresponsible words. Christine Boutin, a former minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, raised the spectre of “civil war” on her Twitter account. In parliament, the debate was hardly more peaceful: rightwing MP Philippe Cochet accused the government of “killing children” by allowing same-sex marriage.
While the French media are quick to mock the excesses of some anti-gay policitians or preachers in US, over the past few weeks we had to face the truth – that such hate speech also exists in France.
Now that the bill has been voted through, the first same-sex marriage will be celebrated in June. Dominique Bertinotti, the family minister, said: “It’s time for healing.” But the question is, can we get over it? The anti-gay marriage movement has more demonstrations planned for May, and some MPs have suggested they will overturn the law as soon as they find themselves with a parliamentary majority. Can those two Frances really make peace after the filth and the fury?