Some thoughts on the French protests against gay marriage

Opponents of the same-sex marriage demonstrate against the government’s draft law to legalise marriage and adoption for same-sex couples in Paris, November 18, 2012. The sign at right reads “No to Homosexual marriage”, the one behind it says “The family is sacred.” REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

There’s been quite a bit of media confusion and consternation about the astonishingly large French protests against gay marriage and adoption that occurred the other day.  In the end, I feel just about as confused as anybody, but I would like to point out a couple of things here:

  1. One of my constant refrains in translating French politics to Americans has been that the version of France that we get here, the New York Times and Washington Post version, is only a very limited perspective on what France is today.  It’s only based on this narrow vision that something like these protests (or, in my own work*, the popularity of Nicolas Sarkozy) seem surprising.  there’s a vast, working class, disenfranchised and non-Parisian French population that most Americans have almost no sense of.
  2. But it’s not only left-leaning American academics who seem to have no sense of the sector of societé, it’s the French technocratic elite as well.  Whether or not Hollande is right about this issue (which he unquestionably is), every account of what’s happens suggests that he and his government were completely taken aback by the reaction–this was supposed to be an easy no-brainer that would slide through.  The very fact that they “didn’t see it coming” is both instructive and indicative of a larger pathology in French political culture: even in my own, limited, anthropologist-as-bumbling-neophyte way, and even while hanging out with (mostly) libertine-esque Parisian artists and leftists, I knew there were strange undercurrents of homophobia; blockages from unexpected people towards thinking about homosexuality as a human lifestyle.  Whether or not I agree with Hollande (and, again, I find it impossible not to), or share many of the same basic assumption about the world (which I probably do), these protests point once again to the fact that France’s technocratic elite are pathologically detached and unaccountable from the people in whose name they govern.  I’m not the first to make that argument–Bourdieu and many others beat me to it–but I have tried to emphasize how this disconnect offers a challenge for French political life while also opening the door to the kind of right-wing populism utilized by Nicolas Sarkozy and his supporters.  You can seen it in the less-than-earnest response by Sarkozy protege Jean Francois Cope, but also in the insistance by Hollande and crew that things will move forward as planned no matter what.
  3. This utter failure by social scientists and politicians to understand a large sector of French (and, I think, American) public life is a shame.  It’s a shame because i think there are real lessons to be learned here about something i really don’t understand.  And I really don’t get it; I really don’t get the affect nor the target.  On either side of the Atlantic (although one thing I do get is labeling it an American conspiracy gets us close to nowhere).  For example: one thing that should be thrown into stark relief about the American version of these debates by the French ones is that whatever this is about (and, again, i have no real clue) it is not merely adherence to a religious tradition.  Since the French have spent the last 10+ years stoking fears of “Islamists” importing religion into the public sphere, the gay marriage debate has largely avoided the issue.  but yet the target and the stance is the same.  Doesn’t tghis make us question how much the U.S. debate is “really” about religion and how much religion is merely the idiom through which the debate happens?  i think it does.  Although i don’t know if this gets us any closer to explaining what’s going on, it sure helps in knowing what kinds of explanations to avoid.

*This article is behind a paywall.  If you have access to it, i prefer you use the above link.  if not, you can find it available here


10 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the French protests against gay marriage”

  1. Kevin

    if Hollande and his fellows were surprised by the reaction – and I’ll have to take your word for that – then not only are they out of touch with ordinary folks, but they are out of touch with their own history. This demonstration was largely organized at the instigation of the Catholic Church, and showed once again that they are capable of putting boots on the street on a social issue, just as they were over the private schools in Mitterand’s time. I take it you’re a little too young to remember that, but the French version of Wikipedia has a fairly accurate article on that movement, which rocked the socialist government of the time. Over 500,000 marched from Versailles to protest against proposed legislation which was intended to deal with the problems posed to equality of educational opportunity by the private schools – many if not most of which are Catholic.

    I have some militant Catholics in my family, and my wife’s in-box was stuffed full of their fulminations in the run-up to the recent demo. How the PS could have missed this beats me. But I don’t think that this time they really have much weight outside the Church and the far Right. Last time, they had the support of many parents who wanted an alternative to the public school system. This time, they are just digging in their heels on command of the old man in the Vatican

    1. Timothy,

      I obviously don’t know Hollande personally, so can’t speak to his innermost sentiments, but it does seem to me (from afar) that he/they were caught off guard, to say the least. If this is true, i agree that it’s a social fact that needs as much explanation as the “why are people against gay marriage” question.

      Could part of that explanation be that, along with their general estrangement from most of France, they really do buy their own rhetoric about the laicite of French life? Maybe, but again i’m hesitant to make this too much about “religion”…

      …And thanks for the wiki link. You’re correct, i was not familiar.

      1. The news coverage definitely presents the protests as unexpected. I am just skeptical. I think the statements you give by Taubira and Sapin support at least as well the interpretation of intentionally paternalistic state action, which, further, isn’t really seen as that risky because a majority of the population is in favor “marriage equality.”

      2. The staunch belief in laicity as one of the basic – if not *the* basic – pillars of the republic comes as naturally to the French intellectual classes as reverence for the Constitution does for their American counterparts. (When Sarkozy called for a debate about the matter, even the Catholic Church demurred).

        The move still has a majority in the country – , even if it has slipped since last year.

        I was thinking of Asad when I made the distinction. In any case, one should not forget that any politician who crosses the Catholic Church, particularly on its own territory, is going up against a bureaucracy that has lasted almost two thousand years, and can be seen as itself a continuation of an even older Empire. It’s not to be sneezed at.

  2. Hi Kevin, thanks for these thoughts. The journal de 20h keeps interviewing people saying that the large protests mean the government has to rethink its response, but it’s not clear to me that that means the response was unexpected. At least in conversation, I have repeatedly heard this push to expand marriage beyond heterosexual couples framed in relation to the abolition of the death penalty by Mitterrand, also much protested, and I assume that Holland and his party desired this historical resonance with the acts of the last major Socialist leader. In this sense, the negative popular response may be interpreted by these politicians as an indication of the rightness of their action; they intend to be “out of touch” because they presume that they are acting correctly. To wit, Holland et al. implicitly argue that much as Mitterrand was right to abolish the death penalty even when it was supported by the majority of the French population, they will push for the betterment of the nation, even if despite itself.

    1. Fair enough. It seems like i at least have to retrace how i got the sense that this was unexpected.

      maybe it was in the tone of the news coverage, or maybe it was in the “there’s nothing to see here; just a bit of paperwork pushing through” kind of tone I hear in the way some of the ministers talk… statements like Sapin’s “It’s good they’re expressing their opinion… but in six months, will we remember this march? I don’t think so. And by then, the law will be passed and no one will go back on it.” from the NPR piece linked to above. Or Saupira’s techno-legal doublespeak from the FRANCE24 link “A referendum on same-sex marriage would be unconstitutional…. The constitution stipulates the circumstances when a referendum is possible; here it is not the case. The bill will go ahead.”

    2. This isn’t quite right. Public opinion has been overwhelmingly favourable to gay marriage. See here : If the recent campaign has rolled those figures back in the last 18 months, it would be a remarkable sea change. I think government ministers are not overly bothered by the demonstration because they know that they have no reason to be.

      1. “I think government ministers are not overly bothered by the demonstration because they know that they have no reason to be.”

        that’s kinda my point. although i think you mean here that it’s an overwhelmingly popular position to take (which I think is at least questionable now), while I mean that they’re insulated from any real degree of public accountability

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