On May 18, French president Francois Hollande signed the Marriage for All bill, legalizing same-sex marriage in France. Why should it be surprising? From the American point of view, French are known for their strong secular culture, their praise of sexual freedom, and their commitment to abortion. So no surprise there. But the conditions surrounding the vote were very surprising and unusual in the French secular context. It brought to the streets a strong opposition led by Catholics like Frigid Barjot, the self-proclaimed “press secretary for Jesus.” Opposition was both religious and secular, creating strange alliances of secular leftist and religious conservative figures. Most notably, the main argument against the law drew on natural and social sciences, not on religion.
The same-sex marriage debate has divided French society in a way not seen for nearly three decades. The split was reflected in the vote for the law itself that passed by a slim margin (331 to 225). And the vote was the outcome of several months of heated and passionate debate, including demonstrations in major French cities that rallied more than three hundred thousand people at a time. Columnist and right-wing political activist Virginie Merle, better known as Frigide Barjot (a pun on Brigitte Bardot), has emerged as the spokesperson of the opposition. Outspoken and witty, she became a born-again Catholic in 2004 after making a pilgrimage to Lourdes. As early as last fall, she took the lead in coordinating protesters under the umbrella movement La Manif Pour Tous, (Demonstration for All). Since January the group has organized several demonstrations and continues to protest despite passage of the law. In the last stages of the parliamentary debate, the protests even took a radical turn with clashes between the demonstrators and the police. Barjot called “for blood” while Beatrice Bourges, co-leader of La Manif Pour Tous, threatened civil disobedience if the law passed, and called for a French Spring. Other protests continue as well. On May 21, seventy-eight-year-old historian and writer Dominique Venner, known for his extreme-right-wing positions, shot himself on the altar of Notre Dame in front of fifteen hundred visitors after professing his support for ongoing demonstrations on his blog.
Even if the majority of protesters come from groups close to the conservative branch of the Catholic Church, what is striking from an American perspective is the ideological and religious diversity of the movement. It includes various political groups and personalities from the entire ideological spectrum, as well as representatives of religions other than Catholicism, and even gay groups in favor of the status quo. The contrast with the United States, where the opponents belong mostly to evangelical or Catholic groups in alliance with the Republican Party, is stark. Even if we limit the comparison between the two countries to religious groups, the difference is striking. The 2012 U.S. presidential elections showed a shift among young Republican voters toward support for same-sex marriage, while the protests against the same-sex marriage in France reveal the emergence of “les catholiques intransigeants” (uncompromising Catholics). They are urban, well educated and lean toward the extreme right. For example, 27 percent of 18-35 years olds who belong to this group voted for the National Front of Marine Le Pen (daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen) in the last presidential election. This is a significant change from the previous generation of Catholic activists who were enthusiast supporters of Vatican II and tended to vote for left-wing parties.
Most interestingly, the protests have mobilized a vast array of political and religious personalities. For this reason, the debate was rarely coined in religious terms (except by a few clerics like Cardinal Vingt-Trois). It was grounded instead on anthropological and sociological arguments about family, social stability and the survival of the human species. In stark opposition with the United States, where scientists and scholars have usually spoken in favor of same-sex marriage using scientific arguments, the same groups in France have used science against same-sex marriage. On March 16, 170 law professors sent an open letter to the French Senate stating their opinion that children adopted by same-sex couples will be deprived of knowing their biological origin. The letter also argued that same-sex marriage legitimizes the commodification of procreation by producing a “market where children can be fabricated and sold like goods”. Psychoanalysts Pierre Levy-Soussan, Jean Pierre Winter, and Christian Flavigny weighed in warning of the negative effects of same-sex families in the psychological development of children, calling such couples a biological experiment. Philosophers and sociologists also joined in, the most prominent being Sylviane Agacenski, the wife of former socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. She raised concerns about the survival of the marriage as a fundamental institution for the transmission of social identities based on gender and generations. Philosopher Pierre-Yves Zarka argued that same-sex marriage legitimizes extreme individualism that puts the social cohesion of democratic communities at risk by undermining social cohesion in favor of personal desires and lifestyles.
These biological and sociological arguments against the law reveal an anxiety about the meaning of social identities and the nature of social cohesion that is very specific to French society and goes far beyond the religious condemnation of homosexuality. At the same time, it highlights that French collective values remain unconsciously connected to a traditional vision of society, and that the religious conception of the family has not been completely eroded by centuries of French secularization.
Jocelyne Cesari is senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and director of Harvard University’s program on Islam in the West.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/E-Matou. CC BY 3.0.