The Gay-Marriage Flap; the Government Is out of Step with Public Opinion

Article excerpt

Byline: Eric Pape, With Marie Valla in Paris

At the Begles town hall, near Bordeaux, Stephane Chapin and Bertrand Charpentier stepped out of a chocolate-colored Rolls-Royce--one in a pinstripe black suit, the other in white. Watching uneasily was the local mayor, Noel Mamere. He had presided over many weddings, but never one like this. Riot police faced off against protesters. The wedding vows, closed with a kiss, played repeatedly on the nightly news. Mamere himself wept openly.

The first gay marriage in French history, earlier this month, has highlighted a cultural chasm, revealing that touchstone religious and social issues can still flare up in strikingly secular France. Since announcing that he would oversee the wedding, Mamere has been condemned by angry churchgoers, been sent a package of feces and received so many death threats that the Interior Ministry assigned him a bodyguard. Serge Dassault, owner of the conservative French daily Le Figaro, penned an op-ed piece accusing people like Mamere of trying to "destroy the basis of our society" and the concept of family. The Justice Ministry launched efforts to nullify the marriage, and last week Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin signed a disciplinary measure suspending Mamere from his mayoral duties for one month.

While even some socialist leaders have come out against gay marriage, they see the government's sanctioning of Mamere as extreme. The respected center-left daily Le Monde, which has expressed reservations about gay marriage, last week called the suspension a "government blunder" and mocked Villepin for using such measures against a man who has not taken bribes, pilfered state money or been linked to financial scandals--as have a number of top government officials. And by progressive European standards, Mamere is hardly pushing the envelope.

Belgium and the Netherlands already celebrate gay marriages. Sweden and Spain are expected to do so by the end of the year. A Gallup poll of the 15 European Union nations last year found 57 percent support, with virtually identical numbers in France. The bottom line is that it's France's government which is out of step with society, not gays who wish to marry, says Mamere, who received 5 percent of France's presidential vote as the Green Party candidate in 2002.

As is often the case in France, the future may be found in the past. The cultural battle over civil unions that roiled France in the 1990s saw religious and conservative groups screaming that such unions, whether straight or gay, threatened the sanctity of marriage, family values and even French national identity. Before civil unions became legal, the nation endured seven years of legal drafting, two years of parliamentary arguments and the protests of 100,000 angry conservatives and/or pious Roman Catholics in front of the National Assembly. …