26 May 2013

Anti-gay marriage rally keeps debate alive in France

Thousands take to the streets of Paris in opposition of the French government’s legalisation of gay marriage last week in a final show of force, after months of debate that has hugely divided France.

Anti-gay marriage march in Paris (Image: Reuters)

The bill was signed into law last week, but the French anti-gay marriage movement, La Manif Pour Tous, pledges that the fight is not over.

Protesters were joined on Sunday by members of former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). The far-right Front National, though not openly welcome, also joined the rally.

The largest rally so far attracted 470 000 people, and today organisers had hoped for more, calling for people to join not only for their “indignation be heard, but also to free France from the thought police that [the] government [..]seeks”

When the bill was approved in the Senate, President Francois Hollande said that it was “now time to heal and move on”, but La Manif pour tous is determined to keep the debate alive. The movement’s vocal leader, Frigide Barjot, has suggested that there are plans to put forward candidates at the next local elections in 2014 to reverse the law from within.

Nation divided

The debate over gay marriage has polarised France since it was brought to Parliament last autumn and has been overshadowed by violent protests and a wave of homophobic attacks.

Just under half of the French population opposes gay marriage at 47 percent. Most of those are Catholics, conservative right-wing voters and include all age groups, from students to pensioners and entire families with children.

But the Manif pour tous also count far-right fringe groups among their supporters. The Bloc Identitire, GUD and L’Institut Civitas are groups that even Marine Le Pen’s Front National is keen to avoid. They have been blamed for the violent turn some of the protests took and the police strongly suspect that the individuals responsible for homophobic attacks and gay bars were members of these politicised gangs.

Opponents to gay marriage were quick to condemn the use of violence. Frigide Barjot describes herself as “anti-gay marriage” but not “anti-gay” and even called for “homophobic skinheads to be thrown in jail”.

Romain Bruel, a journalist at the gay magazine Tetu, still feels that they have a role to play in the radicalisation of the anti-gay marriage movement.

He says, “the language that the some of the opponents to gay marriage used was violent. They referred to a war, and warned that there would be blood if Hollande did not abandon his plans to pass the bill. Using such powerful words opened the gates to violence and homophobic attacks. These words made them acceptable.”

Homophobic attacks

Attitudes towards the LGBT communities in France became increasingly hostile as the debate progressed. The French charity, SOS Homophobie, received three times as many reports of homophobic incidents in the first three months of 2013, compared to same months last year.

Wilfred de Brujin was attacked in Paris (Image: Reuters)

The most high profile case was Wilfred de Bruijn. He and his boyfriend Olivier Coudert were violently attacked one night while walking home. Pictured here after the attack, a photograph of Mr de Brujin’s bruised face went viral on social networks.

SOS Homophobie’s president, Elizabeth Ronzier, says that the number of calls was “impressive” but that she is hopeful that it would calm down once the debate had blown over.

Despite the controversy, the implementation of one of his manifesto pledges should come as relief to President Hollande, but the toxic issue of same sex marriage has done nothing to help his plummeting popularity.

Just last week, marked his first year in office: polls revealed that 73 percent of French were unhappy with his performance so far, and the press was scathing. The word “mediocre” was a favourite in headlines.

Political moves

His presidency has been marred by an economy in recession, high unemployment rates, especially among the young, and a political scandal in which the Budget minister was forced to admit to practising prolific of tax evasion.

Critics of the bill have said that there were more important issues to focus on in times of economic hardship. One of the Manif pour tous mottos is: “We want jobs, not [this] law”.

The biggest threat is the boost that political right-wing parties might benefit from because of strong opposition to a liberal policy. Young and new generations of right-wing voters have mobilized around this issue.

Carol Ardent, a young supporter of the Manif pour tous believes that she is part of a “generation for whom [gay marriage] has been a founding act, we won’t forget that”. Jean-Francis Cope, the new leader of the UMP, is keen to capitalise on this momentum. He has called upon voters to take part in the protest today to say NO to same sex marriage and “to say a global NO to Francois Hollande’s politics”.

Meanwhile, 67 percent of French feel that it is now time to move on to other issues. The first same sex marriages are expected to take place in June.