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

Dispatch

Revolution, Interrupted

There's a reason Egyptians keep taking to the streets: The Muslim Brotherhood has proved to be little more than the old Mubarak clique with beards.

CAIRO — There is no denying that Egypt's revolution has turned more violent and grimmer since its ecstatic early days. For all its nobility of purpose, it has proved unequal to the enormous tasks history had placed on its shoulders. It was stalled and hijacked -- first by the military in uneasy collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood, and then by the Brotherhood in uneasy collaboration with the military.

What can look like mere chaos is actually the natural product of a revolution whose signature demands remain unfulfilled. And there's no wishing it away anymore: Hosni Mubarak's regime is alive and well, in all but name. The only difference is that its representatives sport the trim beard preferred by Brotherhood leaders, if not the grizzly, flowing beards of their Salafi allies.

Yet again, a single political party seeks to exercise uncontested hegemony over Egypt's state and society. Not only has it kept in place a legal code laden with repressive legislation, but it has maintained the structures of authoritarian rule erected by its predecessors.

Two years after the revolution against Mubarak's police state, not a single step has been taken to reform Egypt's hated police force, which ran riot during 30 years of uninterrupted state of emergency. Today, it continues to function as a lawless militia feeding on torture, murder, fabrication, and detentions without trial.

Egyptians received another reminder of this fact last Friday, Feb. 1, when a citizen captured on video a horrific scene of roughly a dozen police officers -- dressed in full anti-riot gear -- beating and stripping naked a middle-aged protester, Hamada Saber. Possibly more disturbing was the televised "confession" Saber was later made to give, in which the battered, clearly terrified man claimed that he'd been stripped and beaten by the protesters and that the police were actually helping him. Saber later reversed his initial account, admitting that the police were to blame and that his confession was coerced.

The "confession" was even more revealing than the incident itself: Two years after the revolution, Mubarak's police remain as willing to use threats and torture to fabricate evidence and extract the most ludicrous of testimonies -- and the Muslim Brotherhood remains unwilling to demand change.

The abuses of Egypt's police under President Mohamed Morsy's administration are increasingly attracting international attention. In the course of a single week of protests marking the second anniversary of the revolution, some 50 people were killed and hundreds more injured in street battles between the police and Egyptian citizens. In a statement on the violence, Amnesty International noted that eyewitness accounts "point to the unnecessary use of lethal force by security forces during a weekend of clashes with demonstrators."

And as for the new constitution drawn up exclusively by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi-jihadi allies, it has proved to be potentially even more authoritarian than the 1971 constitution under which Mubarak consolidated his rule. Maintaining the previous constitution's bizarre penchant for rendering basic rights and civil liberties subject to the stipulations of a profoundly anti-democratic legal code, the new constitution subjects them as well to the unstated "principles of Islamic law," as elaborated by the collectivity of acknowledged Sunni jurists -- most of whom lived and delivered their rulings during the Middle Ages.

Two additional twists to the new, "democratic" constitution potentially establish an Iran-style, if Sunni, theocracy. Prominent Salafi leaders have interpreted the constitution as allowing judges to refer directly to Islamic law in passing sentences -- cutting the hands of thieves, stoning adulterers, and the like -- without having recourse to specific penalties stipulated by the legal code.

The Muslim Brotherhood's use of torture and street thugs is also hauntingly evocative of standard Mubarak regime practice. Following the Dec. 5 attack on protesters demonstrating before the presidential palace -- employing guns, knives, swords, and tear gas -- Morsy delivered a televised national address in which he claimed he had solid evidence, including confessions, that some 80 detained protesters were paid agents of Mubarak regime "remnants."

In fact, the detainees, who had been captured and tortured by Brotherhood thugs, were all cleared and released the next day by the district prosecutor. At that point, the Morsy-appointed prosecutor general punished the prosecutor by transferring him to a remote province -- triggering open rebellion in the prosecution service and forcing the prosecutor general to retract his decision. For his part, Morsy has yet to offer an apology or explanation for his wild accusations, which under the Egyptian legal code renders him liable for prosecution and a prison term for slander.

Freedom of expression and freedom to peacefully protest have also been under concerted attack by the new regime. The Brotherhood, rather than acting to guarantee the independence of the state-owned media, has sought to bring these outlets under its sway -- maintaining and even increasing their obsequiousness to the ruler of the moment and their nearly unmitigated lack of professionalism. The Brotherhood did so even as it acted to intimidate and strangle privately owned media: Its Salafi allies laid siege to Greater Cairo's Media City, home to most private TV stations, and called for the "purging" of the media, while the government launched a record number of cases against the president's critics in the media, most prominently liberal satirist Bassem Youssef -- Egypt's Jon Stewart.

Even the Brotherhood's single claim to democratic governance -- allowing free elections -- is now being subjected to increasing challenge. The constitutional referendum, the single poll held under Brotherhood rule, was tarnished by various recorded incidents of electoral rigging, including the barring of potential "no" voters from gaining access to polling stations.

The new parliamentary electoral law has also been tailored to perpetuate the Islamists' dominance of the legislative branch. The Brotherhood has gerrymandered Egypt's electoral system so that it is very far from one man, one vote: Under the new law, Qalyubia governorate, effectively a working-class suburb of Greater Cairo, has been allocated 18 parliamentary seats, while the Brotherhood-dominated Upper Egypt governorate of Sohag is allocated 30. The number of voters in Qalyubia exceeds the number in Sohag by 300,000.

There is no little irony in the fact that the only relatively free polls Egypt has known in decades might prove to have been those held under military rule.

And two years after a revolution whose equivalent of the French Revolution's liberté, égalité, fraternité was "bread, freedom, social justice," Egyptians find themselves governed by a regime deeply rooted in class privilege and pursuing the very same social and economic policies that favor the rich at the expense of the poor. Muslim Brotherhood leaders, not least the president, have continued to ignore demands for progressive taxation, a fair minimum wage, and the need for sweeping reform of the bloated, inefficient, and corruption-ridden bureaucracy.

The new-old regime's social intentions were made even starker by the one significant piece of economic legislation put forth by Morsy: An increase of the sales tax, which would have hit the poor and middle class the hardest, was stealthily passed in December and then announced a week later at 9 p.m. -- practically on the eve of the second round of voting on the constitutional referendum. It was then comically retracted a few hours later, around 2 a.m., after Morsy said he had "felt the pulse" of the masses, most of whose members were presumably asleep.

Meanwhile, basic public services are in a state of general collapse. The most recent evidence of this is the recurring railway disasters, which in the course of Morsy's presidency have claimed the lives of nearly 80 people, including more than 50 children, and caused the injury of hundreds. Public hospitals are nearly everywhere bare of the most basic medicines and equipment, including beds -- critical patients are made to lie on dirty, littered floors. Public education, ostensibly free, has in fact become almost prohibitively expensive for most Egyptian families, even as standards have hit rock bottom.

The revolution continues, but…

For all these reasons, "normalcy" has not returned to Egypt. Protesters will continue to take to the streets en masse until the demands of the revolution are met.

The second anniversary of the revolution provided yet another illustration of this fact. Egypt once again witnessed demonstrations in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square and all major Egyptian cities, a state of emergency in the three Suez Canal cities, lethal police violence and attacks by unidentified armed thugs, and the icing on the cake -- a late-night presidential statement issuing threats while calling for dialogue. It was like déjà vu all over again.

Yet this is not a mere replay. It is difficult to imagine this uprising ejecting Morsy from the presidency in the same way Mubarak was ousted from power two years ago. The major difference, of course, is electoral legitimacy. It can't be denied that the Muslim Brotherhood and its hard-line allies do continue to enjoy a popular base and are in possession of a huge party apparatus with tens of thousands of indoctrinated, committed cadres.

True, winning an election is not all it's made out to be. I would hazard that, had Mubarak been willing to run in a free and fair presidential ballot, he would still have won -- simply on the strength of state patronage. An unrigged election is not the same as a free and fair election, which assumes a fairly even playing field. And there is also no denying the Brotherhood's swift loss of popularity once it achieved power, which has been a sight to behold.

But still, this is not the extreme isolation of an ossified and decaying clique, like the last years of Mubarak's rule. Nor can the Brotherhood and its Salafi friends be compared to the bloated, dilapidated network of state patronage that was Mubarak's ruling party, nor even to what Mubarak loyalists liked to call the "Ahmed Ezz militia" -- a reference to the mostly yuppie men and women assembled by the infamous steel magnate to rig elections and whip the tattered party apparatus into shape.

Meanwhile, the profound cleavage at the heart of the revolution remains in place. Egypt experienced an almost strictly urban revolution, with the countryside -- which accounts for a little over 40 percent of the population -- largely standing aside. This urban-rural divide is playing out again in Egypt's current political struggle as the Brotherhood loses support in the country's major cities. In the first round of the presidential election, the cities overwhelmingly voted for non-Islamist candidates, and in the constitutional referendum the cities also slipped away. This dynamic is further substantiated by the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have won nearly uncontested preeminence on the streets of major cities throughout the country.

But the Brotherhood and its allies' support in rural and semirural Egypt remains strong. This support allows them to fall back on claims of "electoral legitimacy" through mobilizing their supporters in the countryside, especially in Upper Egypt. They are also further bolstered by the traditionally higher voter turnout in rural Egypt compared with urban voter turnout.

Whether the Brotherhood can maintain its electoral advantage, however, depends on the vision of its political leadership. Its odds aren't good: The Islamist movement came to power in Egypt after having disposed of its most intelligent and politically sophisticated leaders. By 2008, such notable figures as former Deputy Supreme Guide Mohamed Habib and former Guidance Bureau member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh had been divested of any real influence within the group.

The leadership has subsequently fallen fully in the hands of what the group's reformist members describe as "the organizational wing," which controls recruitment, indoctrination, and the internal hierarchy, as distinct from "the political wing," which was involved in day-to-day political activism, including collaboration with other non-Islamist political forces. This organizational wing is made up of Salafists and hard-line followers of Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb, and it is the movement's most regressive, doctrinaire, and least politically savvy force.

Following the revolution, the reformist trend found itself outside the Brotherhood altogether. In fact, all the Brotherhood representatives in the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution -- which provided field leadership in the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak -- are now outside the group, divided among the ranks of Aboul Fotouh's Strong Egypt party and the Egyptian Current. These figures are now moving even further away from the Brotherhood, toward a new and democratic Islamism -- a potentially historic development for Egypt and the entire Muslim world.

In a Facebook posting a few months ago, I joked that of all world revolutions, Egyptians seem to have picked the French Revolution to emulate -- that is, a struggle that raged, in various shapes and forms, for nearly a century. Hopefully, we're not in for another 100 years of this tumult, but the path toward the realization of the revolution's great aims remains long and tortuous.

Egypt's polarized political and social forces continue to be too evenly matched, and the schism between the protagonists too deep, for any viable resolution in the short term. The Muslim Brotherhood may have won -- for the moment -- the reluctant backing of the military and the police, but they're by no means its creatures. The country's security services have minds and imperatives of their own that are by no means identical to, or even commensurate with, those of the Brotherhood leadership. The judiciary also continues to jealously defend its independence from repeated Brotherhood attacks.

And most important of all: The revolution continues.

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