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French Undressing

Where PC meets overweening government power, a terrible politics is born

Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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It is hard to say what made Catholics in France more hostile to gay marriage than those in other countries. Perhaps they have been so long at a distance from power that they have not acquired the habit of political negotiation and compromise. One factor in the resistance is certainly the incentive gay marriage offers to irregular adoption. French people are uneasy about mixing up money values and human values. Surrogate motherhood is still not legal; in fact, one sees it likened to the slave trade in certain newspapers, although legal activists have sought to ease restraints on the practice. 

Gay marriage in France is called mariage pour tous, “marriage for everybody.” The mostly church-inspired movement against it is called la manif pour tous, “the demonstration for everybody,” manifestation being the French for a political march or protest. After all, everybody used to be Catholic. In the spring of 1984, several hundred thousand marchers convinced François Mitterrand to withdraw his project of absorbing the country’s Catholic schools into the state system. 

This was what the anti-gay-marriage protesters had in mind. The main voice of the marches when they started was Frigide Barjot, a gifted and gentle eccentric who had been growing more and more serious about her Catholic faith for a decade. Barjot was an admirer of Pope Benedict XVI. She wrote interesting memoirs, was married to the comic writer Basile de Koch (his name and hers are pseudonyms), and had even made racy music videos. She had (and retains) many gay friends, and she appeared not to have a milligram of ill-will in her body. (“Who am I to judge?” she often says, quoting the present pope.) She was good on TV and the Internet, a person of integrity, living poor as a church mouse with her husband and children in an apartment in a modest block near the Eiffel Tower. (The left-leaning city government of Paris has begun proceedings to kick them out of it; when I visited, it was crammed with dress racks and piled high with cardboard boxes.) 

Barjot described gay couples as a blessing for France and even backed civil unions for them; she insisted only that every child was the product of a mother and a father and deserved to be raised that way. The universe of people ready to sign on to these views turned out to be vast. It ranged from the lay Catholic bloggers of Salon Beige to the Jérôme-Lejeune Foundation (which campaigns for those with Down syndrome) to former housing minister Christine Boutin’s pro-life group Alliance Vita. That is leaving aside Muslims, Jews, the “fundamentalist” Catholics who reject Vatican II, and those who reject gay marriage for reasons that are nonreligious. 

By last winter, the Manif pour Tous showed itself capable of drawing millions—1.4 million showed up for its event in Paris in March 2013, almost double the turnout of the biggest marches in 1984. It was stunning—most polls put Mass attendance in France at around 5 percent, and Catholics themselves had come to think they were dying out. Many Catholics describe the spirit of the Manif pour Tous in exactly the same terms gays did when they began protesting after the Stonewall riots of 1969—they were shocked to discover how many people there were who felt just as they did. Some even described them as “Catholic Pride days.” 

Just as Scott Brown’s election to a Massachusetts Senate seat in 2010 was assumed to signal the end of President Obama’s health reforms, these marches should have meant the end of gay marriage in France. The constitution of the Fifth Republic turns the French presidency into an elective monarchy, which was fine in 1958 when it was designed for Charles de Gaulle. But it has proved a bad fit for anybody who cannot write on his résumé: “Saved the nation in World War II.” France doesn’t have midterm elections (although the approaching municipal elections will permit the public to send a signal). It has little local ability to temper the will of the capital. What it does have, especially since 1968, is a virtually constitutional role for street protests. If you can put enough people in the street to protest a government action, the government will back down. No one understands that better than the 59-year-old Hollande, who was mentored by his party’s soixante-huitards, or ’68ers. Mitterrand had to let Catholics keep their schools in 1984. Chirac had to abandon budget cuts in 1995 and a youth jobs program in 2006. 

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