At times in recent months, the political debate in France took on the overtones of a classic culture war, the likes of which are more familiar to Americans than Europeans. Parts of the country have been left deeply divided after leftist President François Hollande of the Socialist Party succeeded in pushing through his campaign pledge to legalize same-sex marriage.
Despite bitter protests from the opposition and members of the Catholic Church, on Tuesday Paris moved to make France the world's 14th country to introduce full-fledged same-sex marriage rights. Just hours after parliament passed Hollande's "Marriage for All" legislation, granting the same rights to same-sex couples as heterosexual couples, violent protests erupted.
In Paris, protesters threw fireworks, bottles and stones at police officers. Security officials responded by deploying tear gas to push back the crowds, and at least 12 arrests were made late Tuesday night. Photos taken at the scene show emergency workers carrying out police officers apparently injured in the melee, but only one officer has been injured according to official statements.
News agencies report that initially, around 3,500 people gathered peacefully to demonstrate against the new law, which, in addition to permitting marriage, also extends the right to adopt children to married gay and lesbian couples. Just before 10 p.m., the organizers asked protesters to go home, but several hundred people remained and reportedly began throwing objects at police. The protests were finally ended at around 1 a.m. Wednesday morning.
As expected, the National Assembly passed the law Tuesday afternoon with a large majority of 331 to 225. However, members of the conservative opposition said they would launch a constitutional challenge to the new legislation. As the vote grew closer, the protests grew even more radical. On Monday, the chairman of the National Assembly received a threatening letter containing gun powder.
The 'War of the Two Frances '
In Germany, which has had civil unions legislation on the books since 2001 and had its own minor debate on equalizing same-sex and heterosexual marriages that was eventually quashed by conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel, the media has eyed events in neighboring France very closely.
In a poignant article published on Saturday, the center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said the fierce protests evoke what historian Emile Poulat has christened the "War of the Two Frances." "Since France, 'the eldest daughter of the Church,' first separated religion from schools in 1882, and then from the state in 1905, the dispute smoulders on between those who justify this 'secularism' and 'modernity' and those who see it as an attack on the God-given and established social order," the paper wrote. The "conflict that is dividing French society breaks out again and again -- like now, over the introduction of same-sex marriage," the paper said. Members of the Catholic Church, other religions and the non-religious are joined by the shared worry that, "by eroding the traditional marriage and the family, the secular left is abandoning one of the foundations of Western Christian society."
France's leap into same-sex marriage is also a dominant issue for German editorial pages on Wednesday. While most papers seem to agree that Hollande may have erred in not forging a more constructive debate on the topic, they diverge, like much of France itself, on the basis of their left or right political leanings.
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The democratic state has decided. Its decision should be accepted by the opponents of the law. Instead, some of the organizers of the protests are trying to replace the parliamentary opposition and their parties with the anger of many citizens, both on the streets and online. This has long since ceased to be about same-sex marriage. It is now about the legitimacy of the president and parliament."
"Neither the Socialists nor the conservative opposition UMP (Union for a Popular Movement party) seem capable of taking the expectations, hopes and fears of the French people and expressing them in laws and government actions. This frustrates many citizens, who are already disturbed by the upheavals and crises caused by globalization. A striking number of the gay marriage opponents say their protest is directed generally at a world that they think is ultra-individualistic, consumer-obsessed and addicted to the power of money."
"Protest movements can break old structures and force politicians to listen to citizens, but they can also degenerate into fundamentalism. Then they threaten the representative democracies with which the Europeans have fared so well. The new French movement should bear this in mind and accept the following principle: They may have the freedom to protest on the street, but laws are made in parliament."
Conservative Die Welt writes:
"The opponents are still having trouble keeping up with the speed of this kind of gender theory-fuelled progress. The departure from the hetero-normative concept of the nuclear family (father, mother, two kids) stipulated by law is a tough pill to swallow for many. The conviction that children should grow up within a framework they consider to be 'natural,' is deeply rooted in a lot of people -- not just Catholics. This explains why 58 percent of French support gay marriage but 53 percent oppose adoptions by gays and lesbians."
"Hollande failed to lead a public debate and promote his law. If he had, he might have been able to keep the dispute from taking on characteristics of a culture war. The opposition now plans to contest the law with the Constitutional Council, even though its chances of winning are very low. The opponents also want to continue their protests, with a major demonstration in Paris planned for May 26. They are seriously hoping to transform their movement into a 'reverse of 1968,' but they ultimately lack the right issues and substance. UMP has held out the prospect of overturning the law if it returns to power in 2017, but by then many same-sex couples will have married in France. And same-sex marriage will be the new norm, just as it has become in the eight other European countries where it already exists."
Left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"The public outrage is stunning because there are no longer any legislative barriers against the implementation of François Hollande's campaign promise. A majority is a majority."
"But did the French government act too rashly in granting equal rights to gays and lesbians? Shouldn't family related issues be reformed with special caution?"
"Maybe. But the fact is that the same thing that applied to other human rights issues holds true for gay marriage too. When women were granted the right to vote, opponents were also frustrated. When slavery was abolished in the United States, it hurt slave traders' feelings. The integration of gays and lesbians into the institution of marriage was long overdue. And it still is in Germany."
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Few would have believed that the 'Marriage for All' law would mobilize resistance that is now being compared by some to the May 1968 revolt against Charles de Gaulle. And with this issue, of all things, people have succeeded in breaking the left's monopoly on mass protests -- indeed, the demonstrations held by supporters of the same-sex marriage law seemed weak by comparison. Hundreds of thousands marched through the streets of Paris, usurping the usual modern, 'imaginative' protests methods of the left. They included Catholics, Muslims, Jews and a surprising number of young people. The opposition may have failed in parliament, but they succeeded on the streets. They found an issue with which they could link the dissatisfaction the French have with the policies of their president and his government. Hollande had wanted to be a conciliatory president after the confrontations of the Sarkozy years. Instead, he has divided the country in two."