Noel Mamere, a radical leader of France's small Green Party, is
no stranger to controversy. But his latest stunt has not only
sparked a fierce national debate, it has earned him a police escort
to ensure his safety in the face of death threats.
His outrage? To officiate - in his capacity as a town mayor - at
the country's first gay marriage next week, following in the
footsteps of San Francisco's mayor, who challenged California law by
issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples earlier this year.
He also pushes France in the direction of the Netherlands and
Belgium, which have already legalized same-sex marriage, and Sweden
and Spain, which are in the process of doing so, as Europe moves in
fits and starts toward allowing homosexual couples to share the
rights and duties of married life.
France, for now, has legalized only limited civil unions between
gay couples, which puts Mr. Mamere's plans to join a shop assistant
and a health care worker in marriage on June 5 almost certainly
outside the law. The marriage will be "purely and simply null,"
Justice Minister Dominique Perben told the conservative daily "Le
Figaro," because France's civil code requires husband and wife to be
man and woman.
Mamere knows as well as anyone that his gesture will be struck
down by the courts, but he believes in the power of provocation to
shake things up. "In societies as fossilized as ours, it is a
political weapon," he said this week.
In the Netherlands, the only country in the world to have given
homosexuals exactly the same marriage rights as heterosexuals, the
man who made that happen applauds Mamere's "coup de theatre."
"It always takes a few towns, a few officials who want to make a
statement, to start the debate," says Henk Krol, editor of "Gay
News" who launched the campaign that changed Dutch law in 2001.
"Things like this put the issue on the political agenda, and once it
is on, it won't ever come off."
The coming marriage in Begles, a small town in southwestern
France, has certainly created a stir in French political circles and
on the opinion pages of national newspapers. The conservative
government has condemned Mamere, but even President Jacques Chirac
said at a recent news conference that he thought the question of gay
unions needed discussing. "Experience shows," he said, that a 1999
law providing for civil unions "has not provided all the guarantees,
all the solutions to problems linked to human rights."
The opposition Socialist Party adopted same-sex marriage as
official policy two weeks ago, and promised to present a draft bill
to Parliament in the fall, but the question has divided the party
leadership, with former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin coming out
against. It was Mr. Jospin's government that five years ago
introduced the "Civil Solidarity Pact" (PACS), a form of civil union
open to both straights and gays that offers some of the legal rights
of marriage but is more easily dissolved.
That is not enough, says Dominique Boren, president of the Gay
and Lesbian Center, a campaigning and information center for
homosexuals in Paris. "The PACS is a property agreement registered
at a court. Marriage offers symbolic recognition of the emotional
aspects, and gives a couple official status." It also offers more
material benefits, he adds.
While Massachusetts began granting marriage licenses to
homosexual couples May 17, a case on the constitutionality of
California's ban on gay weddings is making its way through the