French Stretch Law to Fit Post-Modern Mores

Article excerpt

For Yannick Gervais, a French computer engineer in his early 40s, it is a dream come true.

Later this week, he and his longtime partner, Ren Varnier, will present themselves at the town hall of Paris's 12th district, sign a "civil solidarity pact," and become one of the first homosexual couples in France to legalize their union.

After 21 years of living together, "at last we will have society's recognition that we are a couple," he says. "Symbolically this is going to mean a lot to us."

For conservative lawmaker Christine Boutin, their signature will be another serious blow to an institution already under threat in France: marriage. "This is obviously going to weaken the family," she says. "And it's only the beginning." In a country where 40 percent of children are born to unmarried couples, the question of how to strengthen relationships and the fabric of society is an important one.

The "civil solidary pact," known by its French acronym PACS, became law last week, making France the first traditionally Catholic country in the world to legalize homosexual unions. It is part of a major shift in the way ordinary people, and the state, view unmarried couples, especially homosexual ones.

After a stormy passage through parliament, often violent public debate, and amid warnings from the Roman Catholic Church, the law now extends to unmarried - but registered - couples some of the tax, welfare, and inheritance rights that married couples enjoy.

It carries forward a trend across Europe, where governments have been giving increasing legal recognition to unwed couples, same-sex or not.

Three weeks ago in Britain, a homosexual man won a five-year court battle to be treated as a "family member" linked to his deceased partner. The House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament, ruled that a "stable and permanent" relationship was sufficient to confer family rights.

In the United States, no state recognizes homosexual marriage. Thirty states have approved legislation barring the recognition of such unions if they should become legal in another state, and five states are considering similar laws.

For Mr. Gervais, the new French law means that "society recognizes us in day-to-day life as fully fledged citizens. It's not that much to ask - we pay our taxes, we do our civic duties just like everyone else."

From now on, he hopes, a host of mundane but awkward problems will disappear. He and his partner will be able to share joint auto insurance, for example.

More important, they will be able to extend their social- security coverage to each other, file joint tax returns, and leave each other property in their wills on favorable tax terms. …