It would be hard to imagine a more family-crazy society than France. If the American Dream is a big house with a three-car garage, the French Dream is still four kids with two ageless parents.
In reality, the French Dream is no easier to attain than the American one. Still, three-quarters of French families have two or more children – and political parties pander endlessly to them. French "family policy" is sacrosanct and direct government aid to couples with children is the highest in Europe. France's birth rate is second only to Ireland's, and miles ahead of Spain's and Germany's.
This obsession with the traditional family is but one manifestation of France's deep-seated conservatism. It's one reason why it took a decade of bitter debate and international opprobrium before France allowed gay marriages, and only then amid massive street protests.
Eighteen months after "le mariage pour tous" (marriage for all), as it's known, was legalized by Socialist President François Hollande's government, polls show that a majority of French voters support the new law. However, a highly mobilized minority is still strongly opposed.
Opponents haven't entirely given up on repealing the law, but that probably can't happen until after the legislative elections of 2017. For now, they have turned their attention to making it as hard as possible for gay couples to have children. Under pressure from the right, Mr. Hollande's government has reneged on its promise to legalize artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization procedures for gay couples. In France, medically assisted procreation is available only to heterosexual couples.
Mr. Hollande's government has also upheld a ban on surrogacy, effectively blocking gay men from becoming the biological parents of babies carried to term by unpaid French surrogate mothers. Some married gay couples have turned to surrogates outside France, primarily in the United States. But the French ban on surrogacy means children born of surrogates outside the country are denied French passports.
The European Court of Human Rights has condemned France for this legal limbo. But as a sign of just how politically toxic the topic is, even French Socialists who once supported loosening the ban on surrogacy have changed their tune.
The latest flip-flopper is Prime Minister Manuel Valls. "I do not believe we can move toward this kind of procreation, which goes against our values," he said this month. Mr. Valls supported legalizing surrogacy when he ran for the 2012 Socialist presidential nomination, but he now calls it "an intolerable practice of commercializing human beings and merchandising women's bodies."
His comments only served to further distort a debate that had already been plenty distorted by arch-conservatives in the name of French family values. French gay-rights advocates aren't calling for the right to rent a uterus. Rather, they propose imitating countries like Canada, where surrogacy contracts are legal (outside Quebec), but paying a surrogate mother for her services is not.
Mr. Valls's about-face came two days before an Oct. 4 street demonstration planned by the opponents of gay marriage. The focus of the latest so-called Manif pour tous (Demo for All) shifted from outright repeal of the law – the cause that mobilized tens of thousands of protesters at similar marches earlier this year and in 2013 – to upholding the bans on surrogacy and IVF procedures for gays.
According to police estimates, only about 80,000 people turned out for the demonstrations in Paris and Bordeaux. But you wouldn't have known it from the saturation media coverage. The debate over surrogacy and medically assisted procreation for gays (known by their respective French acronyms, GPA and PMA) has dominated French newscasts and headlines for days.
Although the debate has Mr. Hollande's government jumping through hoops, it's also sowing plenty of division on the right. Of the main contenders for the leadership of France's main centre-right party, the UMP, only former prime minister Alain Juppé has said he will not seek to repeal the gay marriage law.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, the frontrunner for the UMP presidency, promises to "rewrite" the law and adopt a constitutional ban on surrogacy. Mr. Sarkozy, who wants IVF procedures limited to straight couples, accused Mr. Hollande's government last week of "using the homosexual question for electoral ends."
Proof that, in France, the modern family is still not quite ready for prime time.