I live in North Carolina, a state governed by Christian extremists who have banned gay marriage and fear that the federal government is a leftist dictatorship intent on taking away their rights. Last week, I returned to Paris for the first time in two years and, on Sunday, was fortunate enough to witness a mass demonstration—of Christian extremists who oppose gay marriage and believe that France is governed by a leftist dictatorship intent on taking away their rights.
Sunday’s gathering was the latest in a series of protests against the legalization of same-sex marriage. This one was unusual in that it occurred after President François Hollande had promulgated the legislation—known as the “Taubira law,” after Christiane Taubira, France’s justice minister—on May 17. Hollande himself had dubbed the initiative “le marriage pour tous”—“marriage for everyone.” In reply, Sunday’s event called itself a “manif pour tous”—a “demonstration for everyone.” In this way, the organizers sought capitalize on polls suggesting that a narrow majority of the French public opposes the law. They also went out of their way to present themselves as positive and inclusive, insisting, at least officially, that they were not gay-bashers. They showcased, for instance, several gay participants who favor civil unions but not marriage for same-sex couples.
A “French Spring”?
The May 26 demonstration was ultimately an effort by the most conservative constituencies of the French right to assert their political clout and relevance. It was also a cry of outrage, much as the Tea Party was in the United States when it first emerged three years ago. The umbrella organization for Sunday’s event adopted the name “le printemps français,” or French Spring, thus aligning itself, like the Occupy movements of a year and a half ago, with the revolutionary upheavals that have rocked the Middle East since 2011.
The sentiments animating the French Spring could not, of course, be more different than the anti-Wall Street slogans chanted in Zuccotti Park. If one is to believe them, what is at stake is civilization itself— with “civilization” referring, needless to say, to traditional European (i.e., Christian) society. Thus Béatrice Bourges, the movement’s self-declared spokesperson, declared: “When civilization is in danger, one has the right to defend oneself.” Invoking the rhetoric of the French resistance, Bourges also denounced the country’s mainstream political parties—the socialists but also part of the mainstream right—as “collaborationists” because of their support for (or weak opposition to) the Taubira law.
The French Spring activists argue that politicians could only have concocted such an apparent monstrosity as gay marriage in the first place because the government, as well as much of the country, have strayed from the Christian virtues of la France profonde (i.e., “deep” France). This is the view of Jacques Trémolet de Villers, one of the movement’s most outspoken figures (who also coined the term “French Spring”). A lawyer by profession, Trémolet de Villers was close to Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, the leader of the postwar nationalist right before the emergence of Jean-Marie Le Pen, and served as defense attorney for Paul Touvier, the Vichy milicien convicted in 1994 of crimes against humanity.
In a recent interview with Présent, the nationalist newspaper, Trémolet de Villers explained why he preferred the term “French spring” to “republican spring,” the less polarizing alternative that some on the right were proposing: “French spring, Christian spring, the spring of the family and love, the spring of marriage—these are all much warmer and more exalting. I have a hard time seeing families in western France getting mobilized for the idea ‘republican marriage,’ which is still a sore spot with them. Let’s not be too complicated … The goal is simple.” Family and fatherland (two-thirds of Vichy’s “travail, famille, patrie”), anti-republicanism, Christianity, even a reference to France’s historically counter-revolutionary west: in a few sentences,Trémolet de Villers manages to utter most of the buzzwords that define the outlook of France’s Catholic, reactionary, and traditionalist right.
Lest there be any doubt, Trémolet de Villers, in the same interview, offers a classic defense of the Catholic right’s conception of political authority, almost as an afterthought, while discussing the practical matter of whether the French Spring needs a leader: “I remind my very dear friends of this historical fact, which has been self-evident ever since men fist formed cities, nations, republics, and kingdoms: ‘authority is born.’ It cannot be decreed. It cannot be chosen. One can recognize it, consecrate it, applaud it, or bless it. One does not make it.” Whether intentionally or not, Trémolet de Villers channels the thought of the great counter-revolutionary theorist Joseph de Maistre, who, in 1796, wrote: “Undoubtedly a man may plant a seed, raise the tree, perfect it by grafting, and trim it a hundred different ways, but he would never imagine that he had the power to make a tree. How can he imagine that he has the power to make a constitution?” In this view, human beings inevitably run astray whenever they take it upon themselves to meddle with the divinely created natural order. In many respects, this is one of Trémolet de Villers’—and the French Spring’s—main gripes with gay marriage: it is an instance of human government substituting itself for natural law, making plain its own illegitimacy in the process.
Death in the Cathedral
This reawakening of the old Catholic right appears to have struck a chord with other constituencies of the far right, which in many ways is as organizationally and ideologically variegated as the extreme left. For instance, on Tuesday, May 21, a 78 year old far-right historian named Dominique Venner committed suicide very publicly by shooting a bullet into his mouth at the altar of Notre-Dame cathedral before a throng of tourists. In a suicide note, he described his action as a “political sacrifice” and, in his final blog post, he specifically evoked his hopes for the demonstration on May 26. In this post, Venner, who was initiated into far-right politics defending “French Algeria” in the fifties before becoming one of the spiritual fathers of the nationalist right (notably of the group Occident), lambastes the current state of French society by linking the Taubira law to the Islamization of France: he cites an Algerian blogger who maintains that gay marriage, while offensive, will in any case be repealed when, fifteen years from now, Islamists take over the country. Venner warns: “The May 26 demonstrators cannot ignore this reality. Their struggle cannot limit itself to rejecting gay marriage. The ‘great replacement’ of the French and European population … is a peril that is even more catastrophic for the future.”
Venner’s post is peppered with references to the far right’s favorite intellectual icons. Invoking Ernest Renan (whose “prefascist intuitions” Mussolini admired), Venner admonishes the French to undertake their own “intellectual and moral reform.” Most strikingly, he concludes with a peroration on Martin Heidegger (the post itself is entitled: “The May 26 Demonstration and Heidegger”), in which Venner presents his suicide is an act of authentic being-towards-death: “Our fate is in play here and now, until the last second. And this final second has as much importance as the rest of one’s life. This is why one must be oneself until the last instant. It is by choosing oneself, by truly wanting one’s fate that one vanquishes nothingness. And there is no escaping this obligation, as we have this one life, in which it is entirely incumbent upon us to decide if we will be ourselves or nothing.”
I should probably qualify my opening remarks a little: words like Venner’s are not the kind one typically hears in the halls of the North Carolina legislature. Not simply because of his high philosophical rhetoric, but because—for a man who ended his life in a cathedral—his tone is resolutely atheistic (the celebration of suicide, “the one life,” etc.). Venner saw himself as a champion of Christian Europe, but he defines Christianity in cultural rather than theological terms, which may explain why “Islam” (i.e., immigration) troubled him more than gay marriage. But his suicide note is also a reminder that, alongside the Catholic traditionalists, other elements of the far right are exploiting the anti-Taubira law protests, including the neo-pagan defenders of a primordial European identity. Appeals to participate in the May 26 demonstrations have been issued by such groups as Bloc Identitaire, which embraces a “vision of man rooted in his natural and historic communities” and has made a name for itself organizing “wine-and-sausage” parties in Arab neighborhoods, and GUD (Groupe union defense), a militant nationalist organization that is well established in certain student circles. (The far-right fringe that joined the demonstration also includes a few ultra-Catholic organizations, such as CIVITAS, which promotes the rechristianization of France and is sympathetic to the traditionalist Society of Pius X, of Mel Gibson fame).
One organization that seems to have been curiously bypassed by all this activity is Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN). Though her party has plenty of past and present connections to these groups, Le Pen has been so busy making the FN “respectable” that she has declined to openly ally herself with these fringe movements, despite her support for the anti-gay marriage demonstrations. Interestingly, Le Pen used Twitter to praise the heroism and “political” character of Venner’s suicide—only to issue a clarification shortly afterwards, in which she explained that France would only be saved by “life” and “hope” (read: Catholics are welcome in the FN and nationalists don’t condone suicide). Le Pen has little to lose in distancing herself from these extreme elements, since the FN is in any case the only political force that can expect to profit from the sentiments the demonstrations have inspired.
Families for Filiation
Though apparently the nastier elements of the far right were present on Sunday’s demonstration, they were in any case not immediately visible when I checked it out. The demonstrators marched in three separate columns—mostly originating on the “maréchaux” boulevards along the city’s outskirts, since many protesters traveled to Paris from the provinces—which all converged on a large rally in front of the Invalides. I walked over to the Pont de l’Alma, where one column, formed in the sixteenth arrondissement, was crossing over to the Quai d’Orsay.
Personally, I didn’t notice any goose-stepping or shaved heads. What I did see, however, was very much a church crowd. Most looked like they had come straight from Sunday mass, opting for a little politics in Paris rather than the customary déjeuner dominical. They were almost completely white. Quite a few were senior citizens: women resembling Bernadette Chirac accompanied by men in ties and sweaters. Most people were there with their families, reinforcing the demonstration’s logo—a silhouette of a married couple holding hands with their son and daughter—that bedecked thousands of banners, stickers, and sweatshirts. In addition to political signs, the demonstrators held banners identifying their hometowns—Montdidier, Caen, Chatou, and so forth. Some wore tricolor sashes to show they were mayors. And every so often, a clergymen appeared in the crowd—friars, nuns, priests, bishops.
Overall, it was a pretty well-behaved crowd. The demonstrators were clearly having a good time, in the grand tradition of French manifestations. Loudspeakers constantly reminded them: don’t let yourself be provoked or drawn into a fight. The protesters seemed happy to acquiesce. Their security service was efficient and polite. Yet despite the event’s easygoing, bourgeois feel, its participants left little doubt as to the strident content of their political message and their personal sense of outrage. This was particularly evident in the slogans brandished on their signs and banners.
Some slogans brazenly adopted a strategy of “récuperation”—that is, appropriating or co-opting slogans and symbols associated with one’s adversaries, particularly on the left. One slogan, for instance, declared: “Touche pas au marriage” (“don’t touch marriage”), paraphrasing the famous slogan of the anti-racist movement of the 1980s (“touche pas à mon pote,” or “don’t touch my [immigrant] friend”). Even cheekier was a sign displaying a picture of Gandhi—presumably a symbol of non-violence and moral seriousness—with the caption: “Born of one father and one mother.” In a pseudo-ecumenical spirit, another banner declared: “Croyants ou non-croyants, peu importe la civilization: 1 père + 1 mère pour la filiation” (“Believers and non-believes, whatever the civilization: 1 father + 1 mother = filiation”). The accompanying image showed a priest, a mullah, and a rabbi (I wonder which ones were the “non-believers”?). More blandly, others identified the protesters’ cause with core democratic values—lest anyone suspect them of embracing the authoritarian right: “Yes to Liberty and Democracy!” and “Freedom of Conscience” (beneath an image of a head with a padlock on it).
The leitmotif of the slogans, however, was the idea of “filiation” and the biological sanctity of the family and child-bearing. The movement, at least on Sunday, made a strategic retreat from attacking homosexuality per se. Instead, participants asserted that the Taubira law is dangerous for children, not simply because it allegedly threatens their wellbeing, but because it deprives them of any sense of ancestry or roots. Perhaps this is the debate’s most distinctly French dimension: the idea that same-sex marriage is not simply unnatural or untraditional, but that it undermines a deep connection with the past and the sense of identity (i.e., nationality) resulting from this connection. In the maze of signs and banners, two acronyms were particularly visible: PMA and GPA, which refer to non-traditional forms of childbirth that opponents fear will become rampant as a result of gay marriage. PMA stands for “procreation médicale assistée” or “medically assisted procreation.” It includes in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination, and is currently legal in some circumstances. GPA refers to “gestation pour autrui,” or surrogacy (literally, “gestation for another”). The government specifically excluded surrogacy, which is currently prohibited in France, from the Taubira law. Yet it still managed to stand accused of tacitly supporting GPA when it was revealed that a memo had been circulated instructing civil servants to expedite the citizenship dossiers of infants born to foreign surrogates for French couples (in other words, the infants’ biological parents were, from a legal standpoint, considered a non-issue).
One poster summed up the demonstrators’ objection to this entire debate: “Pas de fiction pour la filiation”: “No fiction about filiation.” The deeper problem, in other words, is the government’s effort to change something as “natural” as blood relations by administrative fiat. Others read: “Un père et mère, c’est héréditaire” (“A father and mother are hereditary”) and “Papa, maman, et les enfants, c’est naturel!” (“Daddy, mommy, and the kids—it’s natural!”). Yet another poster extended the argument of unnaturalness to the idea of marriage implicit in the Taubira law: “Non au marriage mirage”: “No to mirage marriages.”
As much as the demonstrators tried to banish gay-bashing from their midst, it occasionally crept out from under the discourse of “filiation” where it had been hidden. One brochure I was handed—printed by a group calling itself the Association for Catholic Jurists of the Mediterranean Languedoc—contained a revealing cartoon. It shows a distraught child crying as his stereotypically gay parents (two men, one with a shaved head and an earring) glower behind him at the dinner table. The child complains: “When I asked to see mommy, my daddies called me a homophobe. And now I don’t get any desert!”
The most interesting poster was one entitled “Les sans-culottes sont de retour!” (“The Sans-Culottes are Back!”) Perhaps it satisfied my historian’s desire to find a connection between the anti-gay marriage movement and the far right’s deeper historical roots. The poster offered a list of contemporary evils for which it holds the latter-day Sans-Culottes responsible: “GPA, PMA, Hatred, Scorn, Lies, Corruption, Provocation, Gender Theory [!], Dechristianization, and the Destruction of the Family.”
As a number of French news organizations have remarked, President Hollande seems to have hoped that he could use gay marriage as a wedge issue to divide the right. After all, this has been one of the main political stories in the United States in recent months, as Republicans have slowly begun to roll back their hostility to same-sex marriage in order to hunker down on other issues. The pressure to do so comes from the fact that a solid majority of Americans support gay marriage and public opinion has dramatically shifted in this direction in the past few years. The problem in France is not simply that a majority opposes gay marriage at present (in 1981, a majority supported the death penalty, even as Mitterrand planned to abolish it), but that the issue has become grafted onto a broader French culture war. The emphasis on “filiation” shows how deeply opposition to gay marriage is tied to anxieties that the country is losing its historic, cultural, religious, and—some would say—racial roots. Whereas in the US it is at last becoming possible to imagine a day when gay rights would be a non-issue, in France, it remains deeply enmeshed in the major fault lines dividing the country. And the Sunday demonstration provides still further evidence of one of the most depressing constants in French politics: the unwavering political force and agenda-setting power of the far right.
Pictures by Michael C. Behrent. Here are a few others: