LE CHESNAY, France — Through his office window, Philippe Brillault can see the palace of Versailles, where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beset by an angry mob and forced to move to Paris in the beginning days of the French Revolution.
Brillault now sees another kind of revolution, one he believes will also have profound social consequences. As the mayor of Le Chesnay, he refuses to participate: He will not, he says, personally conduct any same-sex weddings in this affluent Paris suburb, even though such unions have just been made legal nationwide. Instead, he’ll delegate the task to other officials.
“This is not simply a law to give homosexuals the right to marry,” warns Brillault, a Roman Catholic who keeps a photo of the pope on his desk. “It’s a new concept of the family.”
He says his conscience prohibits him from abandoning what he regards as France’s bedrock values in favor of a fashionable but dangerous innovation. And he scoffs at the new legislation as “a Parisian law for yuppies.”
Weeks after it was passed by the Socialist government in May, France’s “marriage for all” law continues to divide the country, fueling a debate that is far more polarizing and vituperative than many had expected.
This is, after all, an avowedly secular land famed for its permissive attitude toward l’amour, a country where a former president was known to keep a mistress and the current one left the mother of his four children — whom he’d never married — for a new girlfriend. Opinion polls consistently show that at least a slim majority of the French support allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed.
But the move to officially do so sent hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets and exposed painful social rifts. Commentators surprised by the outpouring of anger pondered the seeming existence of “two Frances”: one the progressive, modern, religiously indifferent France that most of the world tends to see, the other the conservative, traditional, pious France that receives little attention.
“The majority of the French say they are not religious. Nevertheless, in the history and culture of our country, there has always been this religious Catholic anchor,” says Anne Muxel, a sociologist at Sciences Po university. “There is a Catholic culture in France with traditions that are well-rooted in the French identity, which were reactivated on this occasion.”
Even so, the vitriol unleashed by some opponents of the legislation shocked many here, including the bill’s sponsor, Erwann Binet, who became the target of death threats, had his office vandalized and received a letter filled with excrement. Binet is a father of five and a self-professed Catholic who attends Mass regularly.
Though his background is similar to that of many same-sex marriage opponents, Binet says, “I sometimes have the impression of being on a different planet.”
He and others interpret the backlash as the desperate response of a minority fearful that the French identity is increasingly in danger of being subsumed by a radical vision of France. The family sphere was among the last patches where traditionalists have held sway, and they are rising up to defend it.
Olivier Bobineau, an expert on religion in France, terms it “the last gasp” of a wounded animal.
“I have educated, intelligent cousins who went and protested,” he says. “They told me it’s the end of their civilization.”
Religious devotion has fallen dramatically in France in the last several decades, creating a siege mentality among those who have kept the faith, Bobineau says. After World War II, more than half the population was observant, but now only 2% to 4% are practicing Catholics, he says.
That still translates into more than a million people at the very least, and a large swath of them were galvanized into action by the marriage controversy.
Demonstrations, initially spearheaded by a comedian who goes by the name Frigide Barjot, drew hundreds of thousands of protesters in Paris and other cities, before the bill was passed and afterward. Young parents pushing strollers and multiple generations of families thronged the rallies, which focused on the “right” of children to a father and mother rather than two of either.
But the opposition is not only religiously motivated, analysts say. Political conservatism and opportunism play a role as well.
Trounced in elections last year, which brought Socialist President Francois Hollande to power with a sweeping legislative majority, France’s conservatives eagerly seized on same-sex marriage as an issue that distinguished them from the left, which had co-opted some of their other ideas, says Eric Fassin, a sociologist at the University of Paris 8.
“If you look at economic policies, the differences between right and left are marginal,” Fassin says. “The reason why there’s so much political passion against the marriage law is because it’s the only dividing line between right and left today.”
Some political conservatives had grudgingly accepted civil unions for homosexual and heterosexual couples a decade ago. But marriage represents a step too far.
“The French often prided themselves on not being homophobic as long as gays and lesbians were discreet,” Fassin says. But same-sex marriage is a high-profile public statement. “It’s a shift,” he says, “from tolerance to recognition.”
Once the protests gathered steam, they became an outlet for a more generalized disgust with Hollande’s year-old administration. Its lackluster economic performance and embarrassing scandals have earned Hollande the lowest approval ratings of any president since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958.
“We started with a small ball against same-sex marriage, and it started to roll and grow as it attracted people who didn’t care at all about marriage but who are fed up with unemployment, not finding work, high taxes,” says Brillault, the mayor of Le Chesnay.
Opponents of same-sex marriage have vowed to continue protesting even though there is virtually no prospect of the law being reversed any time soon and some couples have already wed.
Jean-Michel Martin and Guy Martineau-Espel, both in their 50s, are among those seeking to join their ranks. The two men, who have been together for 16 years, filed for a marriage license in the southern French town of Arcangues.
But the town hall is run by a mayor who, like Brillault, refuses to conduct such ceremonies and who took the extra step of refusing to deputize other elected officials to do so in his place.
“We didn’t think he’d be so stubborn,” says Martineau-Espel. “It’s simply idiocy.”
The mayor, Jean-Michel Colo, is unapologetic, brushing off warnings from the Interior Ministry that he could be fined or jailed for failing to uphold the law.
“Just because there’s a law doesn’t mean it’s moral and right,” Colo says. “It’s a bad law, and it needs to be changed.”
Last month, the would-be grooms lodged an official complaint against Colo. The following day, the town hall announced that a deputy mayor would officiate after all.
Dozens of friends and residents have volunteered to serve as witnesses at the ceremony. But such is the tension over same-sex nuptials that Martineau-Espel says their home has been under watch by French authorities to guard against vandalism or attack.
“We just want to get married,” Martineau-Espel says. “If people can relate to our story, then that’s very good; it could help things evolve. But I just want to love my partner the way I always have.”
Lauter is a special correspondent.