Dispatch

Gay Paris

What has taken France so long to step up to the altar of equality?

PARIS — Six months from now, France may be glowing amid the Summer of Love, version 2013. And Gay Paris should be, well, a little gayer.

Not that there will necessarily be more homosexuals -- though more might come here. But the visible manifestations of same-sex love and commitment are sure to be more widespread across the City of Light and, indeed, around this notoriously libertine country. That is because Parliament, having just completed a marathon 96-hour debate, is preparing to greenlight "marriage for all" -- perhaps as early as Feb. 12.

Yes, the anti-gay-marriage forces -- from the arch-traditionalists that remain in France's Catholic Church to mainstream conservative politicians who use the issue to try to appeal to the wandering hard right -- are galvanized, and obstacles to gender-neutral marriage remain. Many French may not believe in the hereafter anymore, and the number of active churches may be in dramatic decline, but some who profess to speak the word of God are doing it loudly.

They've held mass protests around the country, most recently bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets nationwide on Jan. 27. Smaller groups, including some who prayed en masse on wintry streets to prevent same-sex weddings from ever happening, unfurled dozens of banners from 170 pedestrian, car, and metro bridges over the Seine in and near Paris. One sign that mixed metaphoric apples and oranges, read: "We want work, not gay marriage."

In a de facto filibuster effort, France's conservative opposition introduced 5,000 amendments to slow down the legislative process. In recent days, anti-gay-marriage forces even orchestrated a brief protest traffic jam to block the Champs-Élysées. Looking ahead, they plan mass protests in the spring when their allies in the French Senate may seek to create further obstacles.

But such efforts are almost certainly doomed to failure. President François Hollande, who made "marriage for all" a core issue of his candidacy, has a substantial majority in Parliament. And politically, clear action and real-world results can only help a head of state whose first eight months in office left many people here with an impression of hapless indecisiveness. His strong choice to intervene in Mali -- which has so far gone well -- has put wind in his sails, and satisfying his same-sex marriage and gay-adoption pledge would add to his newfound momentum.

While traditional-marriage advocates have been very vocal (their largest protests were bigger than any pro-gay-marriage rally), they are in the minority on this issue. Some 59 percent of French citizens are in favor of gender-neutral marriage laws, versus 36 percent against. Even French people who have mixed feelings about same-sex marriage were able to nod or even smile at some of the signs at a huge Jan. 27 rally in favor of marriage equality:

"Adam and Yves."

"Our marriage won't make you gay."

"Marianne" -- the humanized embodiment of heroic, free France -- "was a lesbian."

"The gay wedding registry is going to jump-start the economy."

And somewhat more provocative: "Jesus had two fathers and a surrogate mother."

These are just the latest volleys in a public debate that has been roaring since the early fall. The heretofore deeply divided opposition has been using the issue to come together against something that most of its base agrees on. But the issue has a similar unifying affect on the other side, bonding the Socialists with sizable far-left constituencies that otherwise lament Hollande's mushy centrism (on the French spectrum, anyway). Meanwhile, on the far right, Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front, has repeatedly suggested the issue is a distraction from more pressing issues: the economy, jobs, and immigration. (She also knows that several of the most popular far-right European politicians have projected a tolerance of homosexuality to highlight their 21st-century political perspective.)

As usual, she is at least partly in phase with many of her compatriots. A notable 72 percent of people say that the public debate has dragged on too long, especially when politicians should have bigger fish to fry, with more than 3 million unemployed and an economy that is barely moving. In other words, there is no such thing as a done deal, but this is as close as it gets.

Politically, Hollande will mobilize his base with a concrete move on same-sex marriage. And as the social transformation becomes policy, France's head of state is poised to bank far more credit than U.S. President Barack Obama did with his turn toward equality in the United States; the French leader will have sparked nationwide change early in his term, whereas Obama only grudgingly and belatedly expressed verbal support for gradual momentum on a state level -- and only when forced by events.

The question is why, in a sexually liberal country with one of the gay-friendliest capitals on Earth, has gender-neutral marriage taken so long? After all, the Marais district, just off the heart of historic Paris, has a gay community to rival San Francisco's Castro area, New York's Chelsea, London's Soho, or Berlin's Nollendorfplatz. In fact, former President Nicolas Sarkozy once accused Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who is gay, of coming out for electoral reasons.

Indeed, France has long been a fairly welcoming place for homosexuals escaping persecution or looking for more freedom. The French decriminalized homosexuality in 1791, much earlier than most countries, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Later on, when Oscar Wilde was released from prison in the sexually repressed Britain of his era -- after serving time for "gross indecency" with other men -- he left his homeland forever and moved to France.

Still, there are plenty of passionate anti-gay voices around France -- including some particularly retrograde ones. The Roman Catholic archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, recently argued that same-sex marriage lights a path toward incest and polygamy. While he isn't alone in making these reactionary comments, there are more comprehensible voices, like Frigide Barjot, an ostentatious media figure whose chosen name is a twist on Brigitte Bardot. (It means Frigid Crazy.) Barjot has spearheaded the anti-gay-marriage and anti-gay-adoption forces, and she has increased her profile in the process, arguing that children need a mother and a father and that marriage needs to be respected, while emphasizing that she has no problem with gays. Although she may be a witty, good-natured, and cosmopolitan face of anti-equality, the reasonable face of intolerance is still intolerance to many on the left.

But the traditional marriages and vision of the family that she is defending is in clear decline, which has nothing to do with same-sex marriage. When France created a legal framework for civil unions -- a sort of marriage-lite -- in the late 1990s, it was designed to legitimize homosexual relationships, but equality laws required that it also be available to heterosexual couples. The irony is that more than 95 percent of those who get the "PACS" [the French acronym for civil unions] are heterosexual. Today, nearly half of children in France are born to unmarried couples.

And it isn't as though France is on the cutting edge of gay rights in Europe. In 1989, Denmark became the world's first country to offer formal recognition of committed same-sex relationships. It took France another decade to catch up. The move from gay-marriage-lite to actual marriage equality will have taken nearly 15 long years in France, if the law goes into effect in 2013. During that decade and a half, same-sex weddings have been celebrated in the Netherlands (since 2001), Belgium (2003), and even in the formerly traditional Catholic countries of Spain (2005) and Portugal (2010). Sweden stepped up in 2009 (six years after legalizing gay adoption), and Denmark in 2012.

What has taken France so long to join the party? For one, gay rights have generally advanced under leftist governments. While French revolutionaries legalized homosexuality, the collaborationist Vichy government of the early 1940s re-banned it, until it was re-legalized under President François Mitterrand, a Socialist, in 1982. It took the government of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to oversee the introduction of civil unions in the late 1990s. But from 2002 until last year, French conservatives ruled Parliament and the presidency. Enter Hollande.

Still, while the mainstream French right isn't prone to advancing gay rights in major ways, it is unlikely to take them away if it eventually gets back to power. Spanish conservatives, who promised to do so before reclaiming parliament, discovered that it was easier said than done. (Spanish judges clarified to Mariano Rajoy, who became prime minister in 2011, that the once-controversial social change had become an integral part of Spain's social fabric).

Another factor is that times are changing. Countries with younger and more socially modern conservative leaders, like Britain's David Cameron, are actually pushing forward on gay rights. The French right, on these sorts of issues, has a long way to go, as do broader swaths of French society.

Partly, this has to do with France's intense respect for sex-life privacy. The country is obviously famous for its presidents and its people enjoying countless largely consequence-free flings. Back in the day, officially heterosexual married couples could also have gay flings -- and to this day, some still do -- but an element of French society encourages discretion even now, the core idea being that your sex life is your own and isn't for the public space.

Think of it as France's "don't ask, don't tell" policy -- but in the public sphere rather than the military. For a long time, this had a positive side, one that allowed a greater tolerance of (discreet) homosexuality than the vast majority of countries. But what was once a plus has morphed into a handicap in the struggle for greater formal acceptance of homosexuality in the 21st century, leaving France in the wake of its European neighbors.

If there was something striking -- or even shocking -- about the hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Paris to protest same-sex marriage, it was that many of their arguments echoed the civil-unions debate of the late 1990s. Then, Catholic groups argued that formally recognizing same-sex relationships would amount to the death of the family and the decline of Western civilization, and they were supported en masse in the streets, where numerous hard-right politicians joined them. But the evolution of that debate is instructive. In 1998, a year before the PACS law went into effect, the French were evenly split on civil unions. By 2004, after five years of civil unions -- and once it was clear that the world hadn't ended -- about 70 percent of the French were in favor.

If a substantial majority of French people are already pro-marriage equality a half-year before it is expected to become the law of the land, how much more popular will it be a few years from now, after people have seen the love-and-joy-filled celebrations from Paris to Perpignan?

EPA/ETIENNE LAURENT

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