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Published on: March 26, 2014
Same-Sex Marriage
A French Surprise

An anti-gay marriage protest movement in France claims it is neither of the Right or of the Left, and refreshingly concerns itself primarily not with the rights of adults, but with the rights of children.

The French see themselves (proudly) and by others (disapprovingly, or enviously, or both) as enormously more sophisticated in sexual matters than the citizens of other nations—notably Americans who are supposed to be chronically afflicted with the Puritan virus. Of course these stereotypes are empirically questionable (in a European survey French women took first place among wives saying that they were dissatisfied by the sexual performance of their husbands; the so-called sexual revolution in America produced excesses that would make Parisian filles publiques blush).

Still, national stereotypes often have a kernel of truth. Thus French politicians get away with widely accepted private behavior that would lead to career-destroying media coverage in America. Is French political culture changing in this matter? Few things hurt a politician more than seeming ridiculous. Perhaps the picture of President Francois Hollande, his head encased in helmet and visor, sneaking off on a motorcycle to visit a new girlfriend in order to cheat on his official mistress (who, not so long ago, replaced the mother of his children), may have a similar political result as the picture a few years ago, of presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, with a steel helmet on his head, sitting in a tank to showcase his readiness to be commander-in-chief. Be this as it may, the French have given us a big surprise in the area of gender politics.

I am not overly fond of The New Yorker magazine with its incongruous mix of politically correct articles and advertisements for outrageously expensive goods. However, on March 20, 2014, the magazine carried an intriguing story by Alexander Stille, entitled “An Anti-Gay-Marriage Tea Party, French Style?”. Earlier this year there were huge demonstrations in Paris and other cities against the same-sex marriage law recently enacted by the Hollande government. Apparently this sudden eruption of public outrage came as a complete surprise, as did its demographic and ideological character. This sort of street demonstration (commonly called “une manif”/ “manifestation”) has a long tradition in France, with a record of stopping or even toppling governments. But it is a tradition of the Left. This one is not. Nor is it, in its ideological content, clearly on the Right. It is not affiliated with any of the parties of the Right. It is not against abortion (“it is not our issue”, said one leader of the movement), nor even against the civil unions (quite similar to marriage in its practical consequences) that have been available to same sex couples (another leader opined, “it is perfectly correct that gay couples should have legal protection”). Although apparently many members are Catholics, religion is not mentioned. Nor are there anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim expressions. The movement is very narrowly focussed on same-sex marriage—and conversely on the heterosexual family. Ludovine de la Rochere, the president of Manif Pour Tous (the official name of the movement), said: “We are in a crisis, of meaning, a moral crisis… And yet, within our reach, there is a reservoir, a bearer of meaning, of energy, of solidarity, of relationships: the family, the source of all the human and economic riches of the nation”.

Stille’s article does not tell us about the supporters and the funding of what now clearly must be a well-organized operation. (Its name by the way is a clever appropriation of Le Mariage Pour Tous”/”Marriage for All”, the name of Hollande’s law—by contrast, the movement is to be a “Manifestation for All” that is, all those who disagree with this supposedly progressive project.) It will be very interesting to see how this goes from here, with consequences for French politics and possibly beyond.

I am not competent to speculate on this. But I was particularly struck by the particular item that sparked this explosion of passionate feelings: It was not the legalization of same-sex marriage as such. Rather, it was the implication that legally married same-sex couples could now adopt children. Under French law, adoption is subsumed under marriage. In other words, the outrage was not triggered by whatever the adults of the same-sex couple would do with each other; rather it was with what they would do with their adopted children. Another spokesperson of the Manif put it very interestingly: “Every person is the product of the union between a father and a mother. We feel that every child has a right to a father and a mother” (my italics).

Let me clarify:  I have no strong feelings about same-sex marriage (though, as I have explained elsewhere, I would prefer, not least on theological grounds, if the government stayed out of the business of defining marriage altogether). I question the assertion that heterosexual marriage is somehow the basis of society. And, as far as I know, the evidence as of now is not clear as to whether children raised by gay couples are or are not as favored as those who are raised conventionally (actually, there are so many variables involved that interpreting any data must be very difficult). No, what intrigues me in this French episode is what triggered it: The concern was not primarily with the rights of adults but with the rights of children.

On the conservative side of the current culture war, there is indeed much talk about children (though one sometimes gets the impression that there is more concern about unborn children than about those that have made it into the sunlight). More fundamentally, there is the assumption that there is a basic normative order (whether commanded by God or prescribed in natural law) for human institutions—an assumption which, given the huge empirical diversity of these institutions, I find hard to accept. But, at any rate, there is a lot of talk about children. I am sure that progressives love their children as much as conservatives, but in their rhetoric children hardly figure at all. Feminists like to say that women “can have it all”. A few can, but for most the assertion is patently false. Choices have to be made, and children are almost inevitably the objects rather than subjects of these choices. The (surely misnamed) “LGBT community” (what community?) is a gathering of adults claiming their rights. Where are the children in this agenda? I have no direct stake in the French movement that has suddenly surprised us. But I find myself rather cheered by it. Perhaps it is an expression of another alleged trait of French people who are not absorbed in the elegant abstractions of intellectuals: down-to-earth common sense.

show comments
  • Robert Bennett

    I too am essentially neutral on the subject of gay marriage. I do believe, however, that it is important for society as a whole to recognize that this is a large social experiment, the full result of which will not be known for a long time. In the past there have been societies in which homosexual relationships were accepted (Ancient Sparta is one), but marriage was reserved for a man and a woman. It is wrong to be dogmatic on this issue now.

    • Fred

      Given how well most of the “progressive” social experiments of the last fifty years have worked out (No fault divorce anyone?), I am far from neutral on the subject. Unfortunately, I think that ship, leaky as it no doubt is, has already sailed.

      • Jim__L

        A couple of scandals — or one scandal plus a heavy cover-up — would be enough to turn the tide. Don’t despair.

        If sensible people can even be found in France on this subject, there are more of us than the hyperactivists want everyone to think.

        • Diws

          I am stealing the term, ‘hyperactivists’. It goes well next to ‘homonormative’.

        • Corlyss

          “A couple of scandals”
          What kind of scandals? Aren’t gays scandal-proof?

          • Jim__L

            A bit teflon in the MSM, it’s true.

            It’s only a matter of time before something truly egregious happens. Probably has already.

          • Corlyss

            I’m eager for examples of something that would even be reported, never mind be accurate.

          • Jim__L

            This is not the place to discuss it. Have a look at the picture paired with this article; images here are not randomly chosen. It’s in incredibly poor taste — the sort you’d see in San Fransisco — but there it is in any case.

            Find publications that will tell the truth, and give them your support and encouragement. TAI has many fine qualities, but evenhandedness on same sex “marriage” is not one of them.

    • Andrew Allison

      I’m conflicted on the issue. On the one hand, I think that gay couples should be permitted to enter into civil unions and enjoy the “couples” benefits thereof. On the other hand, marriage has been regarded throughout history as the union of a man and a woman. Can’t we have both?

      • Bruce

        No, you can’t have both. The purpose of gay militancy is to destroy an institution that has been vital to civil society. Tear down the institutions and you can tear down the country. This isn’t about gay rights. 95% of the populace doesn’t care what consenting adults do in private and the gays know it. That 95% is also fine with civil unions. Within the leadership of the militant gay movement, this is about far more than equality.

        • Andrew Allison

          I hope you’re wrong.
          What, BTW, is the difference between “gay militancy” and “inequality militancy” “union militancy”, “racial militancy” et al? It’s all part of a much more serious problem which is by no means restricted to “progressives”, namely that the democratic majority decision is irrelevant if I don’t agree with it. Militancy, I fear, is the rot which is slowly but surely destroying the Republic.

          • Corlyss

            Agreed, but those other problems don’t lend themselves to endless nattering on about rights.

      • Corlyss

        Not as long as the target is not acceptance but enthusiastic endorsement and elimination of the legal preferences for married people. I used to claim that I don’t believe anyone but the activists want to be married; the bulk of gays wouldn’t embrace the “lifestyle” if they wanted to be married. Then I got to thinking, “They want to prove how ordinary and normal they are. Okay. Get married, settle down, and stop making spectacles of yourselves on Gay Pride day.” It always has struck me as more of a political than social statement.

  • Anthony

    I remember someone long ago said to me “common sense ain’t common” but more to essay’s subject matter while dismissing a gestalt shift. The behavior attested to by Peter Berger in France brings to mind the sacralization of children as identified by Viviana Zelizer. More importantly as well as ironic, perhaps the fight in France for same sex marriage via analogy crystallizes (public demonstrations neither left or right) the familial rights of children – “we are in a crisis, of meaning, a moral crisis….”

  • gubblerchechenova

    Why associate marriage with two guys doing fecal penetration? Is the fecal anus like a ‘male vagina’? Ewwww.

    And if ‘marriage equality’ is so important, why not incest marriage and polygamy?

    • Corlyss

      Yeah. It won’t be long before NAMBLA is a major constituency in the Democratic party. There’s really no rational limit to how far the “rights” pimps will take their arguments.

      • f1b0nacc1

        What do you mean “it won’t be long”?…it is already happening…

        • Corlyss

          Yikes! I didn’t know.

      • Jim__L

        In some “advanced” Scandinavian countries, bestiality is already legal.

        • Corlyss

          That’s depressing news.

          • Jim__L

            It’s where we’re headed.

            We will lose our humanity unless we turn back this tide. It’s good to see that there are even people in Old Europe who see this.

      • Kepha Hor

        I fear you are right, Corlyss

    • Kepha Hor

      And, if the sexual revolution is to define us all, why not stand up for those “pedophile” priests as brave pioneers? They were “pedophile” only because of an arbitrary definition of “child” under American law. Teaching high school, I can assure you that teens are sexually active whether we like it or not (and I, for one, do not). Hence, if the LGBT collective had any courage of conviction, it would defend those imprisoned padres for well-meant, but bungled, attempts to initiate young males into something society seems determined to legitimize. The fact that it hasn’t taken this tack tells me that the LGBT’s know there’s something wrong with themselves, but won’t face it.

  • lhfry

    The author of this article is typical of many. I call it the David Brooks syndrome. Most important is not to be rejected or more likely ridiculed by those he views as more sophisticated than the rabble who oppose same sex marriage. Americans who oppose ssm make the same case about the central role of children but I guess when the French make it, people of Mr. Berger’s ilk are more likely to listen.

    What we’re talking about here is why the state sanctions marriage between a man and a woman. The reason has always been the children, hence the licensing of marriage, the pursuit of paternal recognition, and laws governing the transfer of property and resources based on the marriage contract. The union of a man and a woman can produce a child and the state does not want to be responsible for that child. So it rewards, or used to reward, that couple with children for staying together. It was never about the love between two adults – which we all hope for, but is not necessary.

    “Getting the state out of the marriage business,” a common enough phrase today, is a longtime goal of the left. Why? The union of a man and a woman creates a kinship structure that provides the best defense against an overambitious state. Marx and Engels made this clear and their followers today are hard at work. No fault divorce, artificial reproductive technology, freely available abortion, and now the redefinition of marriage. One could hope for a change in direction, but it’s hard to be optimistic.

    • Gary Novak

      While I would agree that the “David Brooks Syndrome” applies to David Brooks (formerly of The Weekly Standard and now the token conservative at the New York Times), I think you are quite mistaken in thinking that Berger is worried about rejection or ridicule by the knowledge class for sharing any views with the (American) common rabble. Throughout his career Berger has taken politically incorrect positions when appropriate. For example, in 1986– five years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, he published a defense of capitalism (“The Capitalist Revolution”), at a time when enlightened opinion still held that capitalism was on the wrong side of history.

      And the French are not teaching him that children are important to marriage; they are providing a surprising and welcome confirmation of a view he (and his sociologist wife) already held and voiced. Berger’s doubts about the need for state-sanctioned marriage are not part of a Marxist attack on “the holy family” as an obstacle to the expansion of state power. Berger does not share the sophisticated horror of “school choice,” because he knows that parents are more likely to actually care about the welfare of their children than are educational bureaucrats. He has long recognized the importance of “mediating institutions” between the individual and the state.

      To someone not familiar with Berger’s work, it might be reasonable to think he has a finger in the wind, but to those who have followed his career, the motives you impute to him are so mistaken as to be more amusing than offensive.

    • Curious Mayhem

      The left doesn’t want the state out of the marriage business, any more than it wants it out of any other business. What it does want is a government that, like most European governments, reflects the views only of an elite.

      (And this is someone who supports civil marriage or unions for gay couples. What various religions want to do with this issue is up to them.)

    • Jim__L

      We have to hold to the truth, keep telling it whenever we can, and not let lies and stupidities stand.

      From Churchill:

      If you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed, if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly, you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a small chance of survival. There may even be a worse case: you may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves. We cannot guarantee victory, but only deserve it.

  • Corlyss

    “I am not competent to speculate on this.”

    Such humility is rare. There’s a couple employees of ViaMeadia who need to adopt that virtue BEFORE they shoot off their mouths as “experts.”

    I bet the Brusselscrats are having conniption fits over this, now that they’ve cajoled and bullied most EU states into accepting the rights-based argument. Personally, I consider humanity to be sexually omnivorous and I don’t care as long as the sex doesn’t involve defenseless animals and children, but I don’t expect those taboos to last very long either. I support gay marriage only as a necessary evil to permit gay adoption. The sexuality of two people willing to adopt and love an abandoned child is insignificant compared to the needs of the child and the needs of society for that child to be raised by two parents.

    • Fred

      Problem is, it’s far from established that adoption by homosexuals is harmless to children.

      • Corlyss

        Your “Problem is . . . ” confuses me. I’m in favor of adoption by gay parents. We need to have longitudinal studies of whether its harmful or not, but this I know and know full well, leaving children in institutions till they are so old nobody wants to take a chance on them is soul-killing.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Peter Berger has perhaps finally found a social movement he finds himself cautiously in support of. And I can say, after reading his analysis, that I join him. His article reminds of me of his prior “Two Cheers for Class.”

    In historian Kate Cooper’s book The Fall of the Roman Household (2007) she describes the “Christianization” of Roman marriage. She states that “social revolution” brought about “choice,” including the concept to avoid marriage altogether in favor of living as professed ascetics avoiding physical pleasures.

    Cooper describes a second and parallel “social revolution” of the evolving ideal of marriage as a commitment for eternity, which is the focus of her book. This second revolution revolved around the notion that it was desirable for the union to last at least until the children reached maturity, or one parent died.

    Cooper goes on to write that the specific Christian institution of marriage didn’t emerge until the last century of the Roman Empire, as a reaction against the erosion of political and normative stability. Christian bishops and others steered wealthy patrons toward sexually active marriage as a “second tier of asceticism.” Thus, Ascetic Christianity produced a second best concept of the “Christian Ascetic Marriage.”

    If it is possible to leap to the postmodern concept of same sex marriage, we might define it as “third tier asceticism” whereby same sex partners do not deny themselves of sexual pleasure but deny themselves the pleasures and burdens of children. There is a tendency for same sex marriages to be preponderantly between Knowledge Class professionals. Many gays have married their professions and the social status and sinecures that come with it, thus having no room for children.

    In some ways this mimics the sexual dalliances of high status men in French society described by Berger. Even French Christians apparently don’t vociferously condemn such behavior. But the French anti-gay marriage movement perceives that a line needs to be drawn in the sand when it comes to marriage and children.

    It sounds like this anti-gay marriage movement is based on the same sort of perceptual ethics that Berger has written about elsewhere. The French anti-gay marriage movement is not based on hatred of gays, the rich, sexual permissiveness, or any other politically incorrect group, but on moral perception. Again borrowing a Berger dichotomy, this moral perception is not based on “imperatives” (“ban gay marriage”) but instead on “indicatives” (“look at the children how they suffer”). “Look at this! It is cruel to children” as Berger might tentatively say (although Berger cautions that we don’t know the outcome of gay marriage on children yet).

    Again borrowing terms from Berger’s “Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity,” the French anti-gay marriage movement is not “legalistic” or “utopian” but realistic and common sensical. As such I agree with Berger that this movement deserves watching, if for no other reason than to see it it ends up like almost all social movements whereby it suffers from organizational goal displacement or co-optation.

    • Curious Mayhem

      I can’t argue with most of this. I will say, though, that my perception of the same-sex marriage movement in English-speaking countries (and, say, in Scandinavia) is based on the desire of gay couples to be, not only couples, but parents, in a way similar to the majority of straight people around them. It is a roundabout compliment and displaces the older gay ideals of compulsive promiscuity and cover marriages.

      As for the French attitude, I can’t honestly say that I fully understand it. Gay affairs, like the affairs of powerful men with subordinate women around them who cannot rise to the status of wives, have long been tolerated on the basis that they be discreet and not disturb dominant relationships and hierarchies. (Such women are the equivalent of the concubines of antiquity, or aristocratic paramours.) While some ignorant outsiders view this as sophisticated, it’s actually very old-fashioned, loaded with hypocrisy because of the unsolvable conflicts latent in such arrangements and the fact that the weaker parties will always get (excuse me) screwed.

      Gay marriage and parenthood, however, intend to normalize homosexual erotic and parental relationships as standing on their own, in their own right, not something that is simply tolerated on the vulnerable margin. Older gays in the US were threatened by this change in the 1980s and 1990s, because it deflated the marginality and weirdness of gay life, which many of them rather liked but which also left them vulnerable and isolated.

  • circleglider

    I question the assertion that heterosexual marriage is somehow the basis of society.

    Wow. Unbelievable.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Family units are the basis of any human society. It’s ignorant to say otherwise. It’s only a matter of whether gay couples can get in on what is legitimate family formation and continuity.

      • Jim__L

        Legitimate children can’t emerge from a homosexual union. You’d think that with sex education people would understand this better. (Perhaps it’s because it’s really “how not to have children” education, but that would sound much too anti-human to be acceptable.)

        • Curious Mayhem

          I think you mean “naturally” or “sacrally” legitimate? Because a gay male couple can pay a woman to provide eggs and carry a child, then adopt the child. It’s done often.

          Women, both gay and straight, have been getting artificial insemination to get pregnant for 30 years. Single women are increasingly doing it — not that I think it’s a good trend. For a lot of reasons, it’s a bad trend. But I don’t see how, in a free society, we can stop it. What we can do is to stop subsidizing or encouraging it (single motherhood, I mean).

          • Jim__L

            In each of those cases, the biological parents of the child are not the ones taking responsibility for that child.

            Biological parents taking responsibility for their children must be normative.

  • NDaniels

    The self-evident truth, that only a man and woman can exist in relationship as husband and wife, does not depend on location or whether one is leaning left or leaning right. At the end of the Day, truth is not a matter of opinion; truth is, error is not.

  • NDaniels

    Once you make the erroneous claim that in order to be married, it is no longer necessary to exist in relationship as husband and wife, thus invalidating the validity of a valid marriage, any relationship can be defined as marriage if one so desires.

  • manthony

    It’s not unusual for the rational-thinking French society to think outside the box and consider other perspectives to trendy and populist ideas. But on this issue, and as Berger also wonders, I would like to know who is behind the organizing and funding of this movement before I praise the French for their lateral-mindedness.

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