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Gay marriage? In France, c’est compliqué Add to ...

France’s first gay wedding will be celebrated Wednesday in the Mediterranean city of Montpellier, and chances are that the ceremony will be held under police surveillance as unrest persists more than a week after the passing of the country’s same-sex marriage law.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people from all over France gathered in Paris for a last, desperate attempt to have the legislation repealed. Some extreme right-wing groups, whose most visible militants looked like neo-Nazi thugs, held a separate march that ended in violent attacks against journalists and police, but it was a sideshow.

The main demonstration was completely peaceful, similar to those held during the long and excruciatingly emotional controversy that preceded the vote. People from every region and generation, including many young families with children in tow, carried blue and pink signs pleading for each child to have “un papa, une maman” rather than “parent 1” and “parent 2.”

There was no sign of homophobia. In interviews, protesters insisted they want full legal protection for same-sex couples – in the form of the civil union, a regime that already exists in France under the acronym PACS. Marriage is a century-old institution rooted in biology that shouldn’t be tampered with, they said.

Why did gay marriage meet such resistance in France, when the same law was passed with little opposition in other liberal democracies – even in traditionally Catholic societies such as Spain, Portugal and Quebec?

France is distinct. Despite its image as a country of free-thinkers and libertines (which it is, in part), France remains a conservative country where family links are extremely strong. The family Sunday lunch is a sacred ritual and it’s not uncommon to see three generations vacationing together.

Contrary to Quebec, where a majority of children are born to unmarried couples, most French middle-class couples get married as soon as they’re having their first child, which will likely be followed by two siblings. And it’s much easier to be out in Montreal than in Paris, where openly gay life is largely limited to the trendy Marais district.

Moreover, France is a nation of born debaters, with an unusually high proportion of writers and public intellectuals. Every idea that appears in the public sphere is discussed and written about at length; this is what makes French intellectual life so vibrant. So there was a real and profound French debate about same-sex marriage and its consequence for society, with both camps expressing forceful, well-argued opinions.

A relatively small majority of the French are in favour of same-sex marriage, but people are still reluctant to legalize same-sex adoption, access to fertility clinics for lesbians and surrogate mothers for gay couples. France’s governing Socialists had no choice but to postpone these reforms.

The protest movement is mostly supported by the right and the Catholic Church, but the issue transcends the right-left division. Last January, in the front lines of the first march against same-sex marriage, there were politicians who cannot be suspected of right-wing sympathies – notably Simone Veil, to whom France owes its legislation allowing abortion, and former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin and his wife Sylviane Agacinski, a left-wing philosopher and ethicist.

On the other hand, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front national, as well as prominent figures from the moderate right, such as former prime ministers Alain Juppé and François Fillion, refused to side with the opponents of same-sex marriage.

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