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.