On Tuesday Feb 12, the French Assemblée Nationale passed a historic marriage equality bill, after 10 days of fierce debates by the nation’s lawmakers. The Assembée is the French equivalent of the US House of Representatives with 577 seats and two major parties dominating the current legislative session. The Parti Socialiste which won the 2012 presidential election has about 51% of the seats and the UMP holds about 34% of them. The remaining seats are divided among several smaller parties including Europe Ecologie and the Front National, a far right group. The “Mariage Pour Tous” (Marriage For All) bill passed with 329 votes in favor and 229 votes against.
What’s surprising is the amount of controversy that has been stirred up in France over the measure. I spent several years in France and travel there now and then. There are some interesting parallels between the political situation in France and here in the States.
French Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira
At the center of the uproar over marriage equality is Christiane Taubira, the Justice Minister appointed by President François Hollande after his election nine months ago. Taubira has been the target of constant attacks by the Socialistes’ opponents in the UMP, the party that was headed by Nicolas Sarkozy until his defeat last year. Taubira was a member of the Assemblée Nationale representing French Guiana for over 10 years. As Justice Minister, she introduced the Marriage For All bill in the Assemblée and sponsored it for President Hollande who campaigned last year on a promise of marriage equality. Since his election, Hollande’s administration encountered obstinate opposition against his core policy proposals. For example, the well-known ‘millionaire’s tax’ of 75% on the country’s highest incomes was overturned as unconstitutional before any revenue was collected.
Marine Le Pen, President of the Front National
France isn’t exactly conservative. The UMP is considered center/right by the French. In the US, its positions would place it to the left of the Democrats. Even the far right doesn’t want to trash the social safety net. Using social issues as a wedge was far more muted than what was seen in the US. Now that’s changing. The Front National, which was once considered a dangerous, extremist organization, is becoming normalized. After Sarkozy’s defeat last year, the FN’s leader, Marine Le Pen declared her party the only opposition that counts. With only 18% of the vote and just a few seats in the Assemblée, Le Pen leverages her small base with pure hate for the minorities immigrating to France and disgust with the European Union. Abrasive and provocative radio and television personalities have also appeared to help sell the "France for the French" agenda. Anyone who doesn't fit the Le Pen image of a blond, blue-eyed "vrai français" should be expelled at the nearest border with a steep penalty for re-entry, in Le Pen's ideal world. Marine’s 23 year-old niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is the youngest person ever to serve in the Assemblée. She was elected last year.
"We want jobs, not homo marriage," on the banner.
"family=1 dad, 1 mom, children" it says.
Taubira’s Marriage For All bill is a comprehensive measure that extends marriage rights to same-sex couples and it protects their parental rights as well. That includes adoption. The popular Marriage For All slogan is “L'égalité des droits, ni plus, ni moins” (Equal Rights, No More, No Less.) With this, the restless and growing right found its cause. They quickly adopted a position that allows them to claim they support marriage equality, but can’t accept the parental rights provisions of the bill. With Taubira leading the Marriage For All effort, the right also has its favorite villain as a target. Labelled in the press as “Maman des voyous” (Mother of the Hoodlums), Taubira represents everything that the right in France detests. Suddenly, marchers were in the streets of every major city waving pink and baby blue banners and carrying signs with slogans like, “Un Papa, Une Maman” (One Father, One Mother.) Supporters of equal rights called for counter-demonstrations and the Assemblée convened against this backdrop of escalating conflict.
From the start, the proceedings were full of hostility. The UMP took a surprisingly harsh tone in its opposition to the bill. Its representatives introduced hundreds of frivolous amendments to slow the proceedings, if not bring them to a halt. The bigoted and offensive rhetoric on the right invited a comment from one of the representatives on the left about the “pink triangle,” which is widely known in France as the symbol used by the Nazis to identify gay prisoners who were held in concentration camps.
Elie Aboud, one of the UMP representatives responded with a remark that was calculated for maximum effect. He presented testimony against the bill from a child psychologist who determined that there was a risk and a danger to society from a family unit with same sex parents. He finished his presentation by saying that it wasn’t a question of a pink triangle; it was a question of a black triangle. This caused uproar. In Nazi concentration camps, prisoners were forced to wear black triangles to identify them as mentally ill. Aboud was asserting that the testimony he presented was evidence to equate being gay with a mental illness.
Taubira has an established and well-known background as a human rights activist. She is exactly the kind of person who should be in charge of the Dept. of Justice in any major country lucky enough to have her. Even if you can’t understand French, you must listen to the way that she responded to Aboud’s outrageous claim. She went toe to toe and chastised him for his unconscionable statement which he couldn't have possibly meant.
From here, the proceedings continued with open hostilities every day which reached a crescendo when Taubira and her opponents accused each other of being unqualified and unfit to serve in their positions. This became a soap opera in France for those who were interested. Taubira gradually won the public to her as she demonstrated her courage and fortitude. Even some of the UMP representatives said at the end that she had earned their respect.
I chose the clip below because it touches me. It inspires. Here one of the UMP representatives reminds Taubira of another representative from French Guiana, Léon Damas, who served in the Assemblée 50 years ago. He tries to convince Taubira that Damas never expected equality and that his writing explains that people who are different should accept being treated differently. Here’s where Taubira cuts him off with a lecture about Damas, his writing, his intellect, and his belief that there is never any pretext to deny anyone equal rights. She takes an unexpected turn when she recites some lines from a poem by Damas and then ties it all back to the issue at hand. Below the video is the text of “Nous les gueux” by Léon Damas and my own translation of it, “We the wasted ones” side-by-side.
|Nous les gueux - Léon Damas
Nous les gueux
Nous les peu
Nous les chiens
Nous les rien
Nous les maigres
Nous les Nègres
pour faire les fous
pisser un coup
sur cette vie
stupide et bête
qui nous est faite.
|We the wasted ones
We the wasted ones.
We the lesser ones
We the dogs
We the nothing
We the starved
We the Blacks
What do we expect?
What do we expect
stupid and dumb
until it’s done
Taubira’s words after the poem explain:
“If we don’t grant equal rights, if we don’t recognize their [gay couples] freedom, that amounts to saying to them, “What do you expect? Playing fools, pissing your life away , stupid and dumb, until it’s done.”
The Marriage For All bill goes to the Senate on April 2. More demonstrations, for and against, are planned. With a Parti Sociailiste majority, the bill is expected to pass.
Equal right march near La Place de la Bastille, Paris