Wednesday, 24 April 2013

FRANCE: Gays/Lesbians and Homophobia

France legalized gay marriage on Tuesday after a wrenching national debate that exposed deep conservatism in the nation's heartland and triggered huge demonstrations that tapped into intense discontent with the Socialist government. Within hours, fiery clashes broke out between protesters and riot police.

The measure passed easily in the Socialist-majority Assembly, 331-225, just after the president of the legislative body expelled a disruptive protester in pink, the color adopted by French opponents of gay marriage. With the vote, France becomes the fourteenth country worldwide, the ninth European to legalize same-sex unions. But opponents haven't given up, warning they will challenge the legislation in France's Constitutional Council and continue to protest next month.

Indeed, given France’s rather liberal, live-and-let-live social reputation abroad, it struck some foreign observers as ironic the French took so long — and battled so bitterly — to legalize same-sex marriage that purportedly stodgier “Anglo-Saxon” countries like the U.S. and U.K. now appear to be moving toward rapidly. Be that as it may, backers of Marriage for All cheered its final passage — and expect, once the law clears constitutional review in late May, the first legal same-sex marriages to be performed in June.

But the vote divides the country, with an increase in aggressive homophobic sentiment. On Monday, the leader of parliament received a threatening letter filled with gunpowder.

Fear has become widespread among gays and lesbians in France following an attack in mid-April on Vice Versa, a popular gay bar in Lille. Four people showed up at the bar, located in the city's historic center, at 10 p.m. They destroyed furniture, broke the front window and slightly injured the bar's owner and a handful of employees.

The Paris activist group Act Up described the developments as "an explosion of hatred and violence," and the organization SOS Homophobie complained about a week of violence. "There's a climate of homophobia that is leading to aggressive actions," said Elisabeth Ronzier, the group's president. She said the debate over same-sex marriage simmering for months in the country was the cause of the "tensions" and "radicalization."

France legalized same-sex relations in 1982 and then introduced gay and lesbian civil unions in 1999, bestowing a number of the rights of marriage. But the recent protests, which have attracted hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, have brought prejudices back to the surface that many had thought were long forgotten.

The legal reform, voted and passed yesterday, has divided society and sparked intense political debate. The right-leaning opposition and conservative values factions have been using the issue to drive public sentiment against President François Hollande, who has been unpopular since his election last spring.

And in the margins of the protests, people with animosity towards gays and lesbians have been celebrating their own coming outs of sorts. The latest example came on Monday, when Claude Bartolone, the chairman of the National Assembly, received a threatening letter filled with gunpowder. "Our methods are more radical and swift than the protests," the letter reportedly stated. "You wanted war, you've got it." The letter was signed by a group calling itself the "Interaction des forces de l'ordre."

The national campaign against same-sex marriage and the mass protests even caught President Hollande, who listed the new law as "Proposal No. 31" in his election platforms, completely by surprise -- especially given that 58 percent of French support adoption of "Marriage for All." The only area where a majority reject equalizing same-sex and heterosexual marriage is on the issue of adoption, where 53 percent reject it. Hollande has warned in the face of the attacks that any anti-gay violence and "any form of homophobia" will be punished.

The vast majority of anti-gay marriage protesters have remained peaceful. But even as they have claimed to only rebuke the marriage reforms, the ideological leaders of the "Demonstrations for All" movement have certainly done their share to foment hatred of gays and lesbians in recent weeks. ''They're opening a Pandora's box," says Alain Escada, the head of the fundamentalist Christian group Civitas. "The next thing they will want three-way or four-way marriages," blasted the archbishop of Lyon, Philippe Barbarin. "And then the ban on incest will be dropped."

So is the homophobia currently being expressed in France proof of a shift in public opinion in the longer term or just an ugly temporary phenomenon? For Louis-Georges Tin, such animosity towards gays and lesbians hasn't come as a surprise. "In this respect, the debate over 'Marriage for All' has simply been a reinforced indicator," the author of the "Dictionary of Homophobia" told the French daily Libération.

Tin argues that the conservative opposition is trying to use its at times strong rejection of the reform to burnish its own damaged images. On the one side, he argues the conservative Catholic Church has been marred by pedophilia scandals. And the political opposition parties have been weakened by in-fighting. Their vehement rejection of "Marriage for All," he argues, gives them the opportunity to revamp their images as moralists.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo Credit : AFP