This afternoon, France’s Assemblée Nationale, will make the final vote opening marriage and adoption to same-sex couples. Barring a rejection by the Conseil Constitutionnel – the governmental institution lawmakers use to verify the the constitutionality of a bill before it becomes law – France should become the latest country this season, with Uruguay and New Zealand, to legalize gay marriage. Notably, access to medically assisted reproduction, including artificial insemination, will remain strictly banned for single women and lesbians. Contrary to common sense expectations, passage of this bill has been a challenge.
Surprising French Resistance to Marriage Equality
People invested in the issue of gay marriage have been surprised, pleasantly or not depending on their stance, to see an increasingly strong and vibrant protest movement against the legislation. Scholars like David Paternotte note how similar legislation in other European countries has passed with relative ease and never sparked such vocal resistance. Americans in particular often imagine France as a bastion of libertinism and progressive values and find it hard to understand why gay marriage would cause such an uproar. First of all, these stereotypes tell us more about the US and its collective conscience than they do about the reality on the ground in France. Second, normalization of extra-marital affairs, public expressions of affection, and flirtation in everyday interaction don’t translate into inclusive legislation. On the contrary, these norms are built on a heterosexist foundation where sexualized interaction is the exclusive privilege of white straight men – think of Dominique Strauss-Kahn or François Mitterrand.
France More like the U.S. Than You’d Think
Vocal counter movements against gay marriage may be new in Western Europe but they are run of the mill in the United States. In fact, there are quite a few similarities between anti-marriage movements in both countries including their religious overtones, ties to political parties and electoral politics, efforts to appear youthful and upbeat, and appeals to concerns for family.
But Also Different: What Scares People More? Gay Families or Gay Couples?
The surprising and sometimes counterintuitive difference between these two countries are the opposite public and political opinions on gay families. The questions pollsters ask reveal the weight certain issues take in different contexts. For instance, most U.S. polls ask wether people think gay marriage should be permitted or if other legal recognition is better. Sometimes they ask questions about states’ rights. Questions about whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to create families are, of course, generally not asked because in most jurisdictions, they alreadgy have that right. French polls, however systematically couple questions about marriage, adoption, and reproduction.
The idea that gays and lesbians create families and have children is taken for granted in the U.S. but remains the primary source of anxiety in France. Indeed, in France, public opinion polls have always shown stronger support for legalizing gay unions than they have for allowing gays and lesbians to adopt, use artificial insemination, or use surrogate mothers. In January 2013, 63% of people polled by Ifop supported same-sex marriage but only 49% thought gays and lesbians should be allowed to adopt.
In the U.S., public opinion on these issues is flipped. A majority of Americans now support marriage equality but this is only a recent development. However, even as far back as 1996, when only 27% of people polled by Gallop favored opening marriage to same-sex couples, 65% of people polled by the General Social Survey thought that surrogacy should be permitted. Even as early as the late 1980s, judges were granting full parenting rights to lesbian couples. Lesbians and single women have had access to sperm banks since they were created in the U.S.
Why These Differences?
The roots of these differences are historical and institutional. Among other factors, the U.S. federal system and market-based approach to reproductive technologies permit a wide and often unequal variation in parenting rights, including joint adoption and fostering, for gays and lesbians across U.S. territory. Therefore, gay and lesbian families have been legally and socially visible, if not always sanctioned, since the 1980s. They have more or less entered the mainstream – think Modern Family – and have long established politically active organizations.
France’s strongly centralized state and generous welfare policies encourage a high fertility rate on the one hand, and render gay and lesbian families legally invisible on the other. France’s far reaching bioethics law, which bans surrogacy under all circumstances but permits and reimburses fertility treatments for infertile stable heterosexual couples, is framed in terms of filling the gap when “nature” doesn’t work. Furthermore, gay couples are not permitted to adopt, even when it comes to adopting the child of their partner (for an discussion on the meaning of adoption in France, see Bruno Perreau’s book). Today’s law would finally allow such adoptions. Consequently, up until now, gay families have had no legal legitimacy and only started to organize for recognition in the late 1990s. Moreover, gay families have have had little mainstream visibility expect for sensational evening news shows.
Consequences of these differences?
These U.S. and French divergences on the place of gay families play out in the messages of anti gay marriage activists. In the U.S., these activists discuss the dire and unfair consequences for their own children. They resist allowing gay marriage because they don’t want their children to learn that such a thing is possible. TV advertisements during California’s Proposition 8 campaign show this well. Activists call for the rejection of gay marriage but, at least publicly, do not ask for a ban on gay adoption or artificial insemination.
In France, children are also a central component of messaging. Activists of the “Manif Pour Tous” claim children have a fundamental right to be raised by their biological mothers and fathers. These activists have argued all along that they support equal rights for gay and lesbian couples but that all access to childrearing for such couples should be barred. Once they law passes, they claim that they will fight not for the full repeal of the law but only for the articles concerning adoption.
Both situations demonstrate how children become a rhetorical tool in classical debates on liberalism, but from different angles. In the U.S. case, the debate centers over individual rights where gay marriage would force people to teach their children that being gay is OK. In the French case, as Bruno Perreau argues, children are the common good, representing the foundation of the nation itself, and overrule any claims to individual rights. Indeed, French protestors speak not in terms of what they want for themselves, but in terms of what is good for “humanity” (at least that part of humanity living within the French borders).
Both countries have legal decisions pending in the near future. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to release its decisions on United States v. Windsor and Perry v. Hollingsworth soon and several states are considering gay marriage. In France, the Minister of Social Affairs and Health plans to put forward a bill in the fall that would allow married lesbian couples to use artificial insemination.
Going forward, we can pay attention to how public opinion and activists’ tactics on both sides of the issues reflect some of the important national differences and similarities highlighted here. However, we should also be sensitive to evolutions and changing contexts on both sides of the Atlantic. The U.S. and France may still have some surprises in store of us.