Gay marriage protest shows France plagued by self-doubt
The majority of protesters were white, bourgeois and unable to accept that France must change
IT WAS cold in Paris on Sunday, but that didn't deter hundreds of thousands of French people from marching through the streets to voice their disapproval at the government's plans to legalise gay marriage and adoption by June.
According to organisers, 800,000 men, women and children braved the freezing temperatures as they marched to the rallying point at the Champ de Mars, beneath the Eiffel Tower, though police estimated the number was nearer 340,000.
Whatever the true figure, they made enough noise to leave Francois Hollande's Socialist government in no doubt that they are strongly opposed to his bill.
Bolstered by strong support from the Catholic church, young and old from across France brandished banners with slogans such as 'Paternity, Maternity, Equality' and 'The Difference is the key to the Existence'. Some protesters admitted taking their lead from the 'Moral Majority', the right-wing Christian movement of the 1980s in the United States.
According to Le Figaro, the marchers received the endorsement of Simone Veil, one of France's most respected stateswomen, who served in the governments of Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Francois Mitterand. A former minister of health best remembered for her fight to legalise abortion in the 1970s, the 85-year-old Veil descended the stairs of her Paris apartment to "salute" demonstrators as they filed past.
It might at first appear contradictory that a woman who campaigned for the right of women to abort unwanted pregnancies should oppose the freedom of homosexuals to marry, but Veil perhaps represents what lies at the heart of this protest.
She was at the peak of her power in the 1970s, a time when France was the powerhouse of Europe, if not the world, and every Frenchman and woman had an unshakeable belief in the superiority of their country. Germany was divided, Britain was the Sick Man of Europe and the United States was reeling from the Watergate scandal. Only France offered relief from the ills of the world.
Forty years later and France is in trouble. Admittedly, the rest of the western world isn't exactly booming, but few countries are as plagued by self-doubt as the French. Earlier in the month the Economist took another pot shot at the French economy (its third in a year), warning the USA that if it wasn't careful it could end up like France, while last week a senior French politician begged the world to give France a break.
"How can a country blessed by the gods with its culture, food and countryside, and that is the world's most popular tourist destination, come in the space of a few weeks to be treated like a bogeyman," wailed Euro MP Corinne Lepage. "Let's stop with what has gone from simple criticism to outright French-bashing from morning till night, making out that we are the scum of the earth."
The world has changed, and France must change, but many of its people are unable or unwilling to accept the fact, and the protest of the gay marriage bill is an outlet for these feelings.
The people I saw marching through Paris yesterday were predominantly white, well-educated and middle-class – the French bourgeoisie who until recently have led secure and untroubled lives. There was also an astonishing number of young people out marching, young men and women in their late teens or early twenties, a phenomenon one wouldn't expect to see in Britain where the young in general are more tolerant of homosexuality.
For the moment, the government is standing firm. "A referendum on same-sex marriage would be unconstitutional," Justice Minister Christine Taubira told France 24. "The constitution stipulates the circumstances when a referendum is possible; here it is not the case. The bill will go ahead."
And so will the protests and so will France's economic woes. The year 2013 is shaping up to be a seminal one for the Socialist government.