The establishment has been rattled by the vigour and intelligence of opposition to the new law on same-sex marriage.
The “French Spring” movement (le Printemps Français) has rattled the French political establishment – and even gay marriage advocates in faraway California. That’s because it calls into question the claim that same sex marriage is “inevitable” and opposition to it mere bigotry.
In recent months, between 400,000 and a million demonstrators of all ages have crowded the streets of Paris and other large cities in France, loudly objecting to a gay marriage law that, the demonstrators insist, enshrines the notion that mothers and fathers are “optional” for children.
The demonstrators carry signs with a striking logo: a red fist and a blue fist, signifying a man and a woman in revolt, with the tiny white hand of a child between them. Their motto, On ne lâche rien, can be roughly translated, “never give in” or “give nothing up.”
"This is not simply a law to give homosexuals the right to marry," Philippe Brillault, the mayor of Le Chesnay, a small town near Versailles, told the Los Angeles Times. “It's a new concept of the family.”
As in the United States, New Zealand and now Great Britain, political elites in France attempted to rush through a gay marriage law in early 2013 and hoped that the population would respond, in essence, with a shrug.
It was a realistic hope. The French are famously tolerant of sexual liberties and unconventional lifestyles. The funeral of former French president François Mitterrand was attended by both his wife and his longtime mistress. The current French president, the increasingly unpopular Socialist François Hollande, left the mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, whom he never married, to live with another woman, the French journalist Valérie Trierweiler.
But something about the gay marriage law has struck millions of ordinary French people as one step too far.
For one thing, the French law, like those in Anglo countries, constitutes a radical redefinition of marriage being imposed upon a large segment of the populace without their consent.
In June 2011, the French National Assembly voted 293 to 222 against legalizing same-sex marriage. But a year later, Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party won a majority in the National Assembly and announced that legalizing gay marriage was a top priority.
In February 2013, a new gay marriage law – dubbed “Marriage for All” by the government but widely nicknamed “Taubira” after the 61-year-old French Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, who pushed it through the Assembly – passed by a vote of 335 to 221.
Despite the government’s claim that the law enjoyed widespread support, it quickly gave birth to “Demonstrations for All” as hundreds of thousands of people flooded into the streets of Paris to protest.
In a society that gave birth to the motto, Vive la différence – celebrating the differences and frisson between the sexes – there is a certain discomfort with the campaign to make those differences largely irrelevant.
"This project [gay marriage] wants to eliminate sexual distinction and with it the foundations of human identity," the demonstrators wrote on their website.
One of the leaders of the large public demonstrations against the new law that erupted in April and May, the flamboyant French comedienne Virginie Tellenne (stage name Frigide Barjot), explained that she is not “anti-gay” but rather “pro-family.” Or, as the posters put it, “pas homophobe” but “mariageophile.”
“I wanted to give a voice to the thousands of ordinary people, not all of them people of the right, who believe that gay marriage, in the way that it has been imposed in France, is an attack on the family and foundations on which our society is built,” Tellenne told Britain’s The Independent newspaper in late May.
As in other countries, French public opinion appears to be heavily divided.
Opinion polls in 2012 ranged from between 60 percent and 65 percent of French supporting the same sex marriage law... but support appears to have plummeted dramatically in 2013, as the debate raged in the streets. A May 2013 Ifop poll for Atlantico found only 53 percent of respondents in favor of same-sex marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples.
“Weeks after it was passed by the Socialist government in May, France's ‘marriage for all’ law continues to divide the country, fueling a debate that is far more polarizing and vituperative than many had expected,” the Los Angeles Times concluded. “Once the protests gathered steam, they became an outlet for a more generalized disgust with Hollande's year-old administration. Its lackluster economic performance and embarrassing scandals have earned Hollande the lowest approval ratings of any president since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958.”
Indeed, it’s difficult not to see the protests against France’s gay marriage law as a galvanizing event, bringing into relief the same deep divisions in French society that exist in the United States.
On the one side is an urban elite intent on refashioning society into its own image... and on the other is a far larger, more suburban majority that sees its most fundamental beliefs and values under assault. Both sides believe that the gay marriage law has sparked a backlash among a large segment of the French public.
Complicating this primordial culture war is France’s violent political history – with France’s left-wing political parties, once shameless apologists for Stalinist tyranny, squared off against right-wing political groups associated with racism, fascism and even, in the case of the Algerian War that ended in 1962, an attempted political coup.
What has truly alarmed the French political establishment, however, is how the largely spontaneous “Demonstrations for All” (Manif pour tous) against gay marriage have morphed into a larger, more organized political movement, Le Printemps Français, drawing together family, Catholic, traditionalist and some anti-immigrant right-wing groups.
The spokespeople for Le Printemps Français insist their movement is populist, largely apolitical, non-violent, and made up of young people and families intent on preserving the traditional French family.
One of its most public spokeswomen, Béatrice Bourges, says she is hardly the traditionalist Catholic portrayed in the media. She is divorced and remarried, she says, and never votes for the right-wing, anti-immigrant National Front. “How can I be a Catholic extremist?” the plainly exasperated Bourges asked Britains’s Independent newspaper in May. “I have never voted for the far right. I am passionately opposed to violence of any kind. Printemps Français is more a state of mind than a movement. We urge transgressive, but non-violent, resistance. That is to say that we intend to defy a state which has imposed a law which will distort and corrupt the true foundations of human society and civilisation.”
Nevertheless, clashes between police and Le Printemps Français demonstrators reached a dangerous level in May and June. Both sides have martyrs to their causes. Gay groups point to Dutch-born Wilfred de Bruijn, beaten up while walking arm in arm with his gay partner in Paris in April.
For Printemps Français, there is the case of “political prisoner” Nicolas Bernard-Busse, a 23-year old French university student arrested and beaten up June 16 at a demonstration outside the studios of a Paris TV station, where President François Hollande was appearing.
French courts sentenced Bernard-Busse to four months in solitary confinement for the crime of “lying to police” about his name (he gave his game as “Bernard Busse” instead of “Nicolas Bernard-Busse”).
The treatment of Bernard-Busse has been sufficiently egregious that the Council of Europe has sent human rights investigators to France to look into government violence against people protesting the same-sex marriage.
Clearly, things are not going as planned.
France’s socialist government is so alarmed by what Le Printemps Français represents that it took the unusual step of threatening to “ban” it in late May as an illegal, possibly violent organization.
Critics insist that the real threat from Printemps Français lies in its intelligent opposition to gay marriage. Unlike in the United States, the French opposition to gay marriage has focused like a laser beam on its impact on children. Indeed, it is the calm reasonableness of Bourges that seems to unnerve French politicians the most.
“Homosexuals are just people who are trying to make sense of what they are, just like the rest of us,” she told The Independent. “I can understand why they should want to get married. But this law, as it has been framed in France, goes far beyond that. It gives the right to homosexual couples to adopt, which will fundamentally change the conception of family and destroy children’s sense of where they come from.”
But what’s the difference between a heterosexual couple adopting children and a gay couple?
“When a heterosexual couple adopts, they are fulfilling, or replicating, the roles of the biological parents,” Bourges responded. “If a homosexual couple adopts, they are denying the natural origins of humanity. They are saying that children do not come from a relationship between a man and a woman. They are a possession, an accoutrement, something that you can choose to acquire like a car or a necklace.”
Bourges is articulate, friendly and performs well on TV, even against hostile interviewers. Whether her movement can remain focused on family issues – or will be coopted and taken over by more violent fringe groups on the political right – remains to be seen.
Like most of Europe, France is seething with racial tension brought on by large-scale, largely Muslim immigration and record unemployment. The anti-immigrant National Front, with a new generation of young French politicians, won 13.6 percent of the 2012 National Assembly elections, triple what they received in 2007. Even more radical groups, such as Bloc Identitaire, violently opposed to Muslims in France, are also growing in size and influence.
Thus, like all political movements, Printemps Français has many enemies... but its friends may be even more dangerous.
Robert Hutchinson, a veteran travel writer, studied philosophy as an undergraduate, moved to Israel to study Hebrew, and earned an MA in Biblical studies. He writes frequently on the intersection of religion and popular culture at www.RobertHutchinson.com.