AN ANTI-GAY-MARRIAGE TEA PARTY, FRENCH STYLE? New Yorker, March 18, 2014
Last month, marchers filled the streets of Paris and Lyon to protest same-sex marriage, which became legal in France last year. The day after the demonstrations, François Hollande’s Socialist government announced that it would not be putting forward new legislation to make it easier for gay couples to adopt children or have them with the help of surrogate mothers. Although the government insisted that the decision had nothing to do with the protests, hardly anyone believes it. Hollande’s gay-rights retreat was a major victory for La Manif Pour Tous (The Protest for Everyone), the group that has organized a series of massive protests since November, 2012, when the government first introduced the gay-marriage law.
Political street demonstrations are so much a part of French life that they have their own nickname, la manif, short for manifestation, or protest. They have a long history of blocking or undoing legislation, toppling governments, and reshaping the country—sometimes quite literally. Paris itself was redesigned, in the eighteen-sixties, after rioters took control of the city in both 1830 and 1848. Under Napoleon III, Georges-Eugène Haussmann levelled the narrow, labyrinthine streets of medieval Paris and replaced them with today’s sweeping boulevards—in part to make it more difficult for protestors to barricade parts of the city. Still, in 1968, student protests effectively ended the political career of Charles de Gaulle, and, in 1995, forced the government of Alain Juppé to withdraw a series of proposed pension reforms.
La Manif, with some important exceptions, has been mostly a left-wing phenomenon. But, in the past year, it has assumed a different color. La Manif Pour Tous, which was created to protest gay marriage, not only coöpted the term manif but stole the appealing language of the law itself, which was called “Le Mariage Pour Tous” (“Marriage for Everyone”). “A rather brilliant media coup,” Danielle Tartakowsky, who recently published a book on right-wing protests called “Les Droites et La Rue,” told me.
Some in France have compared La Manif Pour Tous to the Tea Party movement in the United States. At a difficult moment in French life—with unemployment at eleven per cent, Hollande unable to gain traction, and a pessimistic public—La Manif Pour Tous has surprised political parties on the right and the left with its ability to bring people into the streets. “Our country is in the midst of an economic crisis at the same time there is a social crisis,” Ludovine de la Rochère, the president of the Manif Pour Tous, said at a recent rally. “More profoundly, we are in a crisis of meaning, a moral crisis. The French are the biggest consumers of anti-depressant drugs in Europe. … And yet, within our reach, there is a reservoir, a bearer of meaning, of energy, of solidarity, of relationships: the family, the source of all the human and economic riches of the nation—of all nations—and a barrier against crime, against despair, and against all extremisms.”
While there are some common elements, the differences between La Manif Pour Tous and the Tea Party are perhaps even more interesting. Social issues—family, marriage, sexuality, homosexuality—have suddenly become highly charged in France, but they play out so differently that they illustrate what’s distinctive about France—and the U.S.—in ways that scramble many notions of left and right, conservative and liberal.
What is similar to the Tea Party is that La Manif Pour Tous emerged outside the structure of the traditional French parties—both the Gaullist U.M.P. and the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen. As with the Tea Party, its supporters claim to represent a silent majority that is not being heard by the élites in the capital. But the Tea Party turned quickly to electoral politics, with what can be seen as either an accession to or a partial takeover of the Republican Party. “La Manif Pour Tous has gone out of its way to keep its distance from both the U.M.P. and the National Front,” Tartakowsky said. It also rejects being labelled as on the right.
Indeed, some of the movement’s positions would place it in the center or center-left of the American debate on social issues. For example, La Manif Pour Tous does not oppose abortion, even though many of its leaders say that, as a private matter, they are against it. “It’s not our issue,” de la Rochère has said repeatedly, when pressed.
La Manif Pour Tous leaders virtually never mention God or the Church, although most are observant Catholics. The French bishops have stayed in the background. Unlike their American counterparts, the French are much less comfortable with religion in public discourse. “This movement is inconceivable without Catholicism,” Tartakowsky said. “And its success is partly dependent on its keeping its religious roots out of sight.”
La Manif Pour Tous has not objected to France’s civil-union law, known as PACS, passed in 1999, which allows gay—and heterosexual—couples to gain legal recognition for their unions without marrying. “It is perfectly correct that gay couples should have legal protection,” Albéric Dumont, another of the movement’s founders and a law student in Paris, told me by phone.
Arguably, the lesser status of PACS unions has done more to weaken the institution of marriage than any number of gay weddings could. Heterosexual couples have made much more use of PACS, choosing to register their unions rather than have a full wedding. There are nearly as many PACS unions each year as marriages. Fifty-seven per cent of French children are born out of wedlock (up from thirty-seven per cent twenty years ago), including the four children of President Hollande, who has never married. The new gay-marriage law, which has allowed seven thousand gay couples (many of them middle-aged) to marry, would hardly seem to be France’s biggest problem.
La Manif Pour Tous supporters talk less about defending traditional marriage than about their opposition to the very idea of gay and lesbian people having children. “Every person is the product of the union between a father and a mother,” Dumont told me. “We feel that every child has a right to a father and mother.” By contrast, same-sex couples raising children has been a common and increasingly accepted practice in the U.S. In 2012, the Republican Presidential candidate and devout Mormon Mitt Romney said, “If two people of the same gender want to live together, want to have a loving relationship, or even to adopt a child—in my state, individuals of the same sex were able to adopt children. In my view, that’s something that people have a right to do.”
This is partly because the U.S. has long allowed single, unmarried people to adopt, without asking them about their sexual orientation. There is a generation or two of Americans who have been raised by gay people, some of them by couples, some not. Numerous studies show that the children raised in these families are as happy and well-adjusted as other children.
By contrast, France has largely restricted adoption to married couples, and artificial insemination to married couples or (heterosexual) unmarried couples who can show that they have been together for at least two years. Unmarried individuals who wanted to adopt have generally had to do so outside France, then bring the children home. The state has given strong preference to married couples, Nathalie Parent, the president of Enfance & Familles d’Adoption (E.F.A.), an N.G.O. that helps adopting families, explained. “In the French civil code, adoption appears under the heading of marriage,” Parent said. “It is seen as a right of a married couple.”
It is the existence of gay marriage that has brought the question of adoption by gay couples to the forefront. While La Manif Pour Tous insists that it is standing up for common sense and the rights of children, others see simple homophobia. The group SOS Homophobie, in its latest annual report, notes a rise in homophobic incidents. “They may not be homophobes, but they are the source of an unprecedented increase in homophobic incidents recorded by SOS Homophobie,” the group’s report on 2012 states.
Opposition to gay marriage represents an important shift in right-wing politics in France, according to Éric Fassin, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of Paris VIII. During the Sarkozy years, the principal source of anxiety was immigration—in particular, Muslim immigration. Sarkozy, like others on the right, went out of his way to adopt liberal positions on social issues while portraying Muslims as unfit for citizenship because they were hopelessly misogynistic and homophobic. But the surprising strength of La Manif Pour Tous has some on the right considering new alliances. In late January, opponents of gay marriage sent out thousands of text messages to French parents, telling them to keep their children out of school because there was going to be a lesson about how boys could become girls and girls, boys. (Also, “training in masturbation.”) The message was reportedly targeted at Muslim parents at about a hundred schools, and led to high levels of absenteeism.
“Under the cover of fighting against homophobia and for gender equality, they are spreading the ideology of gender theory and homosexual propaganda,” Abdallah Dliouah, a Muslim cleric, was quoted as saying in Le Monde.
The Ministry of Education has undertaken a program called the ABCs of Equality to combat gender stereotypes, but insists that the warnings in the text messages were nothing but false rumors. Dumont, of La Manif Pour Tous, did not back down, pointing to a movie, “Tomboy,” that was shown in schools.
Dumont saw an alliance with Muslim groups as a potential benefit. “These social questions have caused some Muslims to approach our movement, and it offers them a way of participating in political life,” he said.
The right, said Fassin, the sociology professor, “is going to have to figure out how to articulate the sexual and racial question.” It may be getting closer. Christine Boutin, a Catholic conservative within the U.M.P., who had been relegated to the sidelines for the past few years but is returning to prominence on the wave of the anti-gay-marriage protests, recently declared, “The dam between the right and the extreme right has fallen.”
Photograph by Etienne Laurent/EPA/Corbis.