In May 2013, French president Francois Hollande signed a bill that made France the 14th country in the world to open marriage to same-sex couples. That same month, Abdellatif Kechiche was awarded the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his film, La Vie d’Adele (Blue is the Warmest Color) — it tells the long, torrid and tormented coming-of-age story of a French lesbian, and was praised by critics all around the country.
For many, these events did not come as a surprise. After all, France considers itself the cradle of human rights and civil liberties, where secularism is as important as the idea of universal suffrage, and where socialists have long had a stronghold.
Except that the same day that saw the Palme d’Or being bestowed upon a queer movie in Cannes also saw hundreds of thousands gather in Paris to protest gay marriage. This came at the tail end of an anti-gay rights movement that had grown into full force over the spring. While the Parliament squabbled over the footnotes of the bill, masses protested the idea of it. And as it became clear that the bill would pass, the opposition grew more ferocious: homophobic violence, illegal protests and scuffles with the police became a near daily occurrence.
Gay marriage was never really about the gays. When Hollande ran for president in 2012, it was one of his more prominent agenda items. The socialist candidate’s project of “mariage pour tous” or “marriage for all” wouldn’t just open civil union to same-sex partners — it would also grant them the same status as heterosexual couples under adoption and inheritance laws. Hollande even promised to open artificial insemination to single women and lesbians, though he dropped this last point when it set off a whole new level of controversy.
With a left-wing majority in both houses of parliament, it seemed that the bill was a done deal. Except that two things were not to be underestimated: France’s conservative bedrock and Hollande’s vast unpopularity. It was an explosive combination.
Ten months into his term, no president has plummeted so fast in the popularity polls. A mixture of unkept promises, austerity measures and high unemployment as well a high-level tax scandal meant that Hollande had seen more loving days. The issue of gay marriage became a rallying point not only for those traditionally opposed to gay rights, such as the Catholic Church, but also for a range of people dissatisfied with the way Hollande has run the country.
Extreme right-wing youth groups marched alongside politicians and nuns. Grandparents and toddlers, parents and teenagers protested to the soundtrack of Gangnam Style or Asaf Avidan’s hit “One Day.” Hundreds of thousands came together under the umbrella title of “Manif Pour Tous” (“Protest For All,” a spoof of Hollande’s “marriage for all”). The tactics of those opposed to the bill varied, ranging from sending death threats to politicians to organizing nightlong prayers for the salvation of their souls. In an attempt to appeal to wider audiences, one particularly extremist group calling itself the “French Spring” compared its members to the protesters of Tiananmen Square and Prague in 1968, even as it released statements suggesting it would target pro-marriage equality factions of the government, political parties and lobby groups and was accused of sending death threats.
According to Scott E. Gunther, author of The Elastic Closet: A History of Homosexuality in France, 1942–Present, what got people out into the streets was not the issue of marriage but the idea of adoption. “Even among the more traditional opponents of same-sex marriage in France, it seems that what bothers many of them is not homosexuality per se, but disruption of traditional family and gender norms,” he says. In this sense, France’s argument against marriage equality differs from that of the United States: the general sentiment is that two consenting adults can do as they please — for example, get married — but they should not impose their lifestyle on others, namely, the children that they would raise. Same-sex adoption was perceived as undermining the family and a threat to the very core of society. Invoking the human rights of the child, the anti-gay rights movement managed to garner respect among a swathe of the population that had not been particularly politically active beforehand.
The French LGBT community responded by organizing marches and rallies as well, often on the same day, and rapidly calling attention to threats or violence. When the gay marriage bill was finally passed this May, Green Member of Parliament Noël Mamère said, “This is not a historical day; France is merely catching up,” which summed up the general sentiment among supporters that it would inevitably pass sooner or later.
Marriage equality has become Hollande’s flagship reform, as he hoped it would. With 4,999 amendments filed by the opposition, the parliamentary debate became one of the longest in French history. After the media frenzy died down, the fascists, conservatives and confused children’s rights activists returned to the woodwork, with various radical fractions splintering off and then fizzling out.
While this spring did in fact reveal the dark, bigoted underbelly of French society, it also shed light on the strength of the democratic process: while an unlucky combination of timing and context can throw a wrench in the fight for gay rights, the democratic ideal of equal treatment under the law is difficult to deny.
For more on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex struggles in Africa and around the world, see:
LGBTI Africa: Cameroon's "Gay Scare" by Eric O. Lembembe
Africa's Small Step Toward LGBTI Equality, by Neela Ghoshal
LGBTI Africa: A Trans Woman in Uganda, by Cleo Kambugu