The French have a track record for going overboard on rational ideologies. The problem is that in their pursuit of those ideologies they can become quite irrational. So I suppose we should not be too surprised by the latest antics of France’s new socialist government. A few weeks ago, their stubborn insistence on their ideological new tax laws plunged them into confusion and now their intolerant threats to anyone who opposes their plans to introduce gay “marriage” by next June looks like stoking old hostilities into flames again.
This latter is putting them on a collision course with the Catholics of France – and its citizens of other religions as well. The impending conflict may not end up with the blood-letting sparked in previous conflicts between ideological republicans, as when the revolutionary army descended on the Catholics of the Vendeé in the 1790s and massacred them wholesale. Nevertheless, the rumblings reported by Reuters yesterday showed that when an ideology grips a certain kind of Frenchman all sorts of abuses – such as the denial of freedom of speech – emerge and it is very hard to stand in his way. Let us hope history has taught them something.
Reuters reported that President Francois Hollande has weighed this weekend into the war of words between his government and the Catholic Church over holding discussions in schools on the planned legalization of same-sex marriage. Charges of political manipulation and the denial of the right to express views contrary to those held by the state are now being levelled at the government.
He defended Education Minister Vincent Peillon on Saturday, the news agency reported, for urging Catholic schools, which teach about one-fifth of all pupils in France, to stay neutral in the debate.
Peillon's supporters and critics dominated the headlines and airwaves on Sunday, a week before a Church-backed protest in Paris that organizers say could draw as many as half a million people opposed to any change in traditional marriage.
The shrill polemics could not drown out another big news story, the growing unpopularity of Hollande and his government. One poll said 75 percent of voters doubt he can keep a New Year's promise to turn around rising unemployment this year.
Laurent Wauquiez, a former conservative higher education minister, slammed Peillon for implying that Catholic opposition to the reform was responsible for suicides of gay teenagers.
"This is a big political manipulation," he said.
Conservatives also cried foul because government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem was filmed in a state school last October praising the marriage reform as progress towards more freedom.
Opinion polls show up to 60 percent of the French back same-sex marriage, which the government plans to legalize by June, and just under 50 percent support adoption rights for gays.
A new poll said 69 percent wanted a referendum on the issue, which all main religions here - Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Jewish and Orthodox Christian - have opposed.
Peillon triggered the row by saying the director of Catholic education system, heavily subsidized by the state, was wrong to urge his schools to discuss same-sex marriage with pupils.
"This education system, which is under contract to the state, should respect the principle of neutrality and the freedom of conscience of all," he stated in a letter to regional education officials who oversee both state and private schools.
These officials should scrutinize the Catholic debates and report any anti-gay views aired in them, Peillon said, urging extreme caution on this issue because young homosexuals were five times more prone to suicide than heterosexual youths.
Hollande backed him in the name of "laicite", the legal separation of church and state that is a secular rallying cry for French opposed to any religion in the public sphere.
"Laicite is a principle of the Republic," he said.
Religious leaders have encouraged people to join next Sunday's protest but most will not march themselves.
Opponents of the new law caught its supporters off guard in November when they brought about 100,000 out in Paris for what was meant as a warm-up to the protest in a week's time.
The protest will converge on the Eiffel Tower and include people from all over France, organizers said.
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