In the American consciousness, France has long occupied an idealized place as a land of bohemian freedom, even licentiousness. Renowned writers like Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway made homes in Paris, fleeing what they considered to be the stifling cultural conformity and narrowness of the United States. As democratic nations that forged their republican forms of government through revolution, America and France share basic values, encapsulated in the French national motto: liberté, egalité, fraternité.
But to watch the debate over gay marriage in France, which recently became the 14th country in the world to legislate it, is to realize just how lacking those principles are in the minds of many French people.
Last Wednesday, in the southern French city of Montpelier, Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau became the first gay couple to be legally married under the country’s new “Marriage for All” law, which was passed by the French parliament earlier in the month. A plan to broadcast the ceremony on a giant screen in the city square was scrapped at the last minute for fear that it could provoke violence from anti-gay activists. Nonetheless, riot police clashed with some protestors.
The previous Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Paris to protest the law. It was the last in a series of massive rallies that began last December shortly after the marriage equality bill was introduced in the French National Assembly. Far right protestors fought with police, who responded with tear gas and truncheons. These protests have been some of the largest in the recent history of France, which is saying something given the French love for manifs, or demonstrations.
Accompanying the mass protests were a series of violent attacks on gay people. All told, they present a picture of a reactionary current in French culture that belies France’s reputation as a socially progressive country.
The vehemence of the negative reaction to gay marriage has come as a shock to many, given the reputation that the French have in matters relating to sex and relationships. President Francois Hollande is not married to his female partner, and no French person bats an eye. France is notorious around the world not only for its tomcatting politicians (like former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn), but for the widespread apathy that most French feel about the private lives of their political leaders.
But while we quickly associate France with open-mindedness, there is another disposition, one tied up with the darker impulses that have always haunted the European continent. This is the legacy of nationalism and reaction, influenced heavily by the Catholic Church, which despite France’s official secularism remains an influential force.
This aspect of the French mentality perennially manifests itself in illiberal ways. It was visible in the campaign of the “anti-Dreyfusards,” the coalition of clerical and nationalistic anti-Semites who launched false allegations of treason against Jewish military officer Alfred Dreyfus in the late 19th century. It reared its ugly head again under the Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazis in the occupation of France. And it was apparent in the 1961 effort by far-right generals to launch a coup against the French government over its attempt to negotiate independence for Algeria.
Connecting these tendencies from different historical eras has been a fear of social change. Visiting Paris not long ago, I interviewed Caroline Mécary, a leading French lawyer and gay marriage advocate. She argued that the debate over gay marriage had caused many French people to “lose their minds” in making apocalyptic predictions over the effect that its passage would have on French society.
Her words struck me as eerily prescient when, just several weeks later, a far-right French historian committed suicide in Notre Dame cathedral after posting a diatribe on his website lamenting both gay marriage and the alleged “Islamist control” being exerted over the European continent (how same-sex marriage could co-exist with Islamism is something that went unexplained).
The fundamental pessimism that underlies opposition to marriage equality in France corresponds with a generalized gloom caused by the ongoing continental economic slump. “No European country is becoming more dispirited and disillusioned faster than France,” a recent survey by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project reports. Long the most prominent advocate of European integration, France is now turning inward, with a remarkable 77% of French citizens telling pollsters that integration has hurt, rather than helped their country.
Observing the rhetoric of existential crisis that many of his countrymen are deploying, a French friend living in Washington remarks, “That fear of difference led us to massacre Protestants, deliver Jews to the Nazis, throw Arabs in the Seine and now become violent in the opposition to ‘marriage for all.’ There is a minority of open-minded cosmopolitan French people, similar to the minority that resisted the Germans during WWII. I salute them, but in the meantime I feel blessed I was able to leave my country and start a life in the U.S.”
Such words may come as a surprise to liberal Americans prone to view their own country as backwards and intolerant, and Europe as perennially leaning forward on cultural matters. But they are well worth considering. In some ways, the vaunted French moral creed has a good deal to learn from the United States, not the other way around.