Reflections on the Revolution in France

Hundreds of thousands gathered in a massive demonstration in Paris last weekend to protest President Francois Hollande’s plan to legalize so-called gay marriage and adoption by gay couples. The diverse coalition included Catholic, Muslim, and Evangelical leaders and laity, secular conservatives and gay people. There was also a rousing performance by French comedian Frigide Barjot. (Get it?)

Many, myself included, were delighted by reports of the event and accompanying photos of the Champ de Mars packed with French citizens waving pink and baby blue signs reading “1 Pere + 1 Mere C’est Elementaire” and “La Manif pour Tous.” (“The Demonstration for All.”) This is France, after all, land of Voltaire, Bohemianism, and Jacques Derrida. France, of the 35-hour work week, subsidized child care, and the aforementioned Socialist President Hollande. Yet, this!

Also fascinating is the rather benign response to the protest from gay marriage advocates in France. Reports state that protestors traveled to and from the site and handed out literature without the sort of red-faced shouting matches one might expect at a similar event in the United States and elsewhere.

What explains such unusual circumstances? What can marriage preservationists in the States learn from these events?

One lesson is the importance of a legitimate alternative to marriage that provides legal protection to important personal relationships. France legalized civil solidarity pacts (PACS), a legal alternative to marriage available to any two adults, in 1999. Though the scope of PACS is more limited than marriage licensure, they provide a means for same-sex couples desiring formal legal recognition of their commitment to–and responsibility for–one another. (It is worth noting that the vast majority of PACS in France are between opposite-sex couples.)

A second lesson is the widespread recognition of the important role of families to the functioning of civil society in France. Growing concern about fertility rates below replacement levels led the government to enact numerous programs to incentivize bigger families, including liberal paid maternity leave, tax credits, and child care subsidies. The French, including many who have no moral objection to homosexuality, recognize the basic point that children benefit from intact homes including the unique contributions of both a mother and a father.

Marriage preservationists like me would do well to allow these lessons to influence our efforts. We should present a viable alternative to marriage that offers legal recognition to the range of interpersonal relationships lacking sufficient status to confer important benefits including, but not limited to, same-sex romantic couples. We should also augment conservative arguments against things like the death tax with consideration of its unfair application to non-married couples who wish to bestow inheritances to their loved ones.

As an evangelical Christian, I am unwilling to neglect my faith’s teaching on the morality of homosexual behavior. However, arguing solely on the basis of Christian sexual ethics is insufficient in America’s diverse public square. That marriage is inherently related to the creation and rearing of children, and that the right of children to a mother and a father is sacrosanct, are both broadly applicable and compelling.

New polling shows that the marriage movement is changing the French public’s attitudes about the meaning and importance of marriage. Despite the narrative of inevitability so widely promulgated in American media, the domestic debate is far from settled.