Sunday, March 31, 2013

What the Redefinition of Marriage in France and the United States Says about Our Cultural and Political Differences (and what it does not).

In our ongoing quest for better understanding the cultural differences between France and the United States, the issue of same-sex marriage (or Marriage for All as it is called in France) is a case in point as it has been in the headlines in both our countries this week. It makes for an interesting pause.

In the United States, the talk is mostly about legal rights and equality, when in France, it's been mostly about families and children.This of course stems from significant differences in cultural, legal and political contexts. In the U.S. the battles for equality and civil rights are typically fought in court (up to the Supreme Court) rather than through the legislative process as in France.

This week the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases:
- one concerns the constitutionality of California's ban on gay marriage (Called Prop 8)
- the other is a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (or DOMA) passed by the U.S. Congress in 1996  which prevents the recognition of same-sex marriage at the federal level, even when recognized by individual states.

In France, a bill granting French same-sex couples (better known as Marriage for All / Mariage pour Tous) the right to marry and jointly adopt children was recently voted by the National Assembly in February. It now needs to be approved by the Senate to become law. The vote is scheduled for April 4. So last week-end was sort of a last chance for the opponents to gather people and express their view... in the streets of Paris. And they did.

And this yet another major difference between France and the U.S.: whereas Americans fight against what they deem as unjust laws in court before a judge; in France, they do so in the streets so as to put pressure on their political leaders, especially right before a vote in the House or the Senate. As a result, the impressive marches and counter-demonstrations need to be taken into cultural perspective. It is quite common in France.

In both our countries, the right-wing parties (The Republican Party in the U.S. and the UMP in France) are the parties of opposition to same-sex marriage. In the U.S., however, the Republicans are slowly changing their minds, including some of their leaders (NYTimes) but also major conservative pundits like Bill O'Reilly (see here). This is due to change in public opinion as polls show that supports for same-sex marriage even among American conservatives is growing. It is also the result of individual politicians changing their minds because they have relatives coming out, as is the case of Senator Portman. (here)

In France, the political context is very different as the left-wing government is down in the poll and under a lot of pressure because of a very gloomy economic environment. So the opposition is emboldened and seizes any political opportunity that can become a lightning rod for anger over President Francois Hollande’s economic policies:
Some demonstrators called for Hollande to resign, citing France’s deteriorating economy. “The protestors’ slogans have changed,” Le Parisien newspaper said. “They are no longer limited to the subject of marriage but are encroaching on economic matters.”(Bloomberg). 
The latest major protest last week drew between 300 000 (according to the authorities) and 1.4 million people (claimed by the organizers), ... and the the truth is probably in between, (say 600, 000). Of course, not all the protesters have done so for political reasons alone, but nonetheless, pretty much all of them were right-wing voters and/or catholic activists, including extremists for some of them.

Some commentators in France (here in French) have even seen similarities between the 'Demonstration for All' (as the anti-Marriage-for-All demonstrators have called themselves) and the Tea Party in the United States. The resemblance is indeed striking.

Both movements:
  • are made of white middle-class conservatives who can't keep up with change,
  • believe they defend the traditional values of the country,
  • claim to be non-political but to represent the "silent majority",
  • are against the "mainstream media" (who, they believe, have all an agenda)
  • have a lot of anger in them (and express it - read this article in French), and promise doom, including civil war, if they are not listened to (France-info)
  • use patriotic symbols (national flags), including founding mythical revolutionary symbols from the 18th century. (see pictures below)

  • are well organized, with codes,  colors (yellow / pink) and flags.
  • have chosen charismatic female voices (Sarah Palin / Frigide Barjot) as their leaders.
  • deny the legitimacy of the representative democracy

Of course, the comparison only goes so far - for one, the Manif Pour Tous movement is so far only focused on the same-sex marriage issue, and it is also tied to the catholic church who's been a very vocal opponent.

Despite these movements, it should be noticed that in both France and the U.S.polls show that a majority of people support same-sex marriage. (here France and here for the U.S.).

As far as the issue is concerned in France, the opponents to Marriage-for-All framed it not in terms of equality, as you might have expected, but in terms of "family values", not only regarding adoption (which is in the bill) but also concerning the right for reproductive technology or gestational surrogacy (which are not in the bill). The latter is not only illegal in France for heterosexual couples, but it is also a very divisive issue. Hence the confusion.

As a result, the debate has not been about the rights of homosexuals to marry but about their rights to have a children (which tends to be more divisive). Eventually, this was shifted to the "rights of children" (i.e. to have both a father and a mother) as opposed to the rights of adults.
This semantic spin is very powerful: first because it seems like a legitimate question, then because it confuses people who are not very familiar with the issue and finally because the right of children is undeniably sacred. (Who can seriously be against children's rights?), and trumps over the right of adults.
But instead of focusing on the rights of children of gay couples, who already exist, they have turned the argument to the right of potential children who do not yet exist  (i.e. who may be born if the bill becomes law.)
By saying that a child needs both a father and a mother, they actually assume that single-sex parents are not good enough to raise children. This ironically fails to take into account the fact that, in France, it has been legal for at least 50 years for single people to adopt a child,without anyone making any fuss about it.
The magic word used for the right of children argument by all the opponents to the bill is "filiation" - not a very common word in English or French. It means "lineage" and is often used in legal discourse to determine the paternity of a child. (see this Le Monde Article).  It is a very powerful concept because it is linked to heritage - a concept central to French culture and identity. France even has a special day of celebration of its national heritage, called "Heritage Day" (Journée du Patrimoine) and the success of its grand Agricultural Fair in Paris is another expression of the French symbolic attachment to their roots.
This is clearly a cultural difference between France and the United States. This question of "filiation" is not something you'd hear in the American debate, even when the question of adoption is raised.

In fact, just last week, Justice Antonin Scalia, a very conservative Supreme Court Justice also linked the
redefinition of marriage to the question of adoption, he said :
And there is considerable disagreement among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a single-sex family, whether that os harmful to the child, or not. (Wash. Post)
As Jon Stewart reminded us, his claim is contradicted by serious studies, including those done by the American Academy of Pediatrics who say
There is no cause-and-effect relationship between parents' sexual orientation and children's well being". 
Here's also what the American Sociological Association reports:
The claim that same-sex parents produce less positive child outcomes than opposite-sex parents—either because such families lack both a male and female parent or because both parents are not the biological parents of their children—contradicts abundant social science research. Decades of methodologically sound social science research, especially multiple nationally representative studies and the expert evidence introduced in the district courts below, confirm that positive child wellbeing is the product of stability in the relationship between the two parents, stability in the relationship between the parents and child, and greater parental socioeconomic resources. Whether a child is raised by same-sex or opposite-sex parents has no bearing on a child’s wellbeing. (Read here, p.3)
Clearly, if the standard for recognizing marriage is whether or not the couple would make good parents, a lot of heterosexuals should not marry.

Stewart of course says it way better:

Of course the 'filiation problem' is just a smoke screen which has no bearing on reality. It is a lot of hot hair that's been well crafted so as to seem to be part of the widely shared national cultural values. The tactic is clearly to confuse and scare people. In this respect, it is not so different from the tactics of the Tea Party movement.
What it comes down to is the belief that homosexuals cannot be proper parents. It is nothing new even if the packaging is different. It is rooted in the old idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, even a a perversion and that it will pervert innocent children.

As for the argument of "tradition", which denounces the change in the law on the ground of tradition,  it is precisely that tradition that saw homosexuality as a legally intolerable perversion. The use of tradition in this respect is indicative of a very poor understanding of history. Clearly, just like the civil union 10 years ago, it will soon be a non-issue. But in the meantime, it is painful to watch so much anger and intolerance.

Whereas the decision of the Supreme Court remains to be seen, and won't be made before June, it is likely that the French Senate will vote the law on April 4 anyway. So why the big fuss? What do the anti-Marriage-for-All people want?

Well, they say they want a referendum, which seems like a good democratic principle since it lets the entire nation decide, but in fact it is a very dangerous populist argument.
  • First, because referendums in France have always been not about the question asked, but about whether or not you support the government. 
  • Second, because article 11 of the Constitution (ironically passed by the conservative Sarkozy majority) specifies that it is impossible to have a referendum on questions concerning the civil society (See here in French)
  • Thirdly, and more importantly, because you don't put a fundamental right to a vote precisely precisely because of the risk of the majority tyrannizing the minority. That's the whole idea of fundamental civil rights and this is a civil rights issue (see my post here) It's like asking white people whether blacks could marry whites in the American South in the 60s. Being gay is no different in the sense that it is part of who you are and not something you can change. As such, it is a civil rights issue, not a simple political issue. 
Lastly, and despite everything I have said here, and my attempts at understanding this movement, I still fail to see why people get so worked up about a law that would not affect their lives in the least and is simply an extension of their own existing rights. In this case, giving more rights  to others does not take anything away from anyone else. And those people call themselves Christian? Where exactly does their action fit anything Jesus ever said?
At the risk of being politically incorrect, the arguments used by people opposing same-sex marriage are steeped in bigotry, and there's no other way around it. And this is true both in France and the United States. Our bigots may look and sound different, but deep down, they are very similar.

Bigotry is the result of ignorance and a lack of basic empathy. The very fact that people who have relatives that come out gay change their minds - think of Dick Cheney for instance - is very telling. Once people put a human face to homosexuality, they become more accepting. They don't define them by their sexual orientation. They see them as real people with the same basic needs, faults and qualities who just happen to have a different sexual orientation. So once more homosexuals come out, people will realize that they are in every circle, and they will become more tolerant and less judgmental.
So there is hope of light of the end of tunnel. We can already see it! Alleluia!