Monday, 25 March 2013

Violence erupts at French anti-gay-marriage protests

Across Europe and the Americas, gay marriage has been enacted peacefully and with minimal protest. Meanwhile, in France...

Yesterday, an estimated one million people flooded the streets of Paris to protest plans to enact same-sex marriage in France. It was the second such massive demonstration, following one held in January against French President Francois Hollande’s effort to enact gay marriage - a fulfilment of a promise made during last year’s presidential campaign.

This time, the demonstration took a nasty turn. The protestors became violent. The police resorted to using tear gas, which allegedly injured some of the many children being used in the protest. The police counter that the anti-gay-marriage protestors were using children as human shields. The president of France's Christian Democrat party says she was injured by police during the protest. Today, the opposition UMP party of Nicolas Sarkozy is calling for the resignation of the Paris chief of police and French interior minister Manuel Valls in response to the tear gas 'used against children'.

UMP deputy Eric Ciotti said on French radio last night that the police response had been "disproportionate". "I have personally seen families who have been tear gassed with children in strollers,” he said.

How much of this violence is hyperbole by the right and how much is actual fact remains to be seen. The police dispute the organisers estimate of one million, putting the figure closer to a few hundred thousand. But no matter the size or the actual level of violence, the images to come out of the protests so far have been shocking.

Not content to block gay marriage only in their own country...

Apparently the French protestors were also unhappy about the lack of public protest against the imminent passage of gay marriage next door in the UK. Busloads of French anti-gay-marriage activists also descended on Trafalgar Square in London yesterday. The UK has not seen any street demonstrations against their gay marriage legislation. Thankfully the French showed up in force to provide imported outrage.

It was a bizarre scene by all accounts, with hordes of French anti-gay protestors (some wearing berets, I kid you not) fighting with British pro-gay-marriage counter-protestors - all as Napoleonic Wars hero Admiral Nelson looked down from his perch atop the column. One wonders which side the admiral would have been on, but that’s another matter.

So, why is this happening in France of all places? Eleven countries across the world have now passed gay marriage, and none have seen anything approaching the level of fierce resistance now being seen in France. Supposedly enlightened and secular France is seeing a violent reaction to gay marriage, while countries like Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Mexico saw little resistance – and certainly no large-scale public protests. Meanwhile England, with its state religion and supposed ‘conservative Anglo-Saxon impulses’ is seeing such little public resistance that now objectors are having to be imported from France.

Even by US standards, where objection to the idea of gay marriage has certainly been strong, the idea of violent street demonstrations opposing it are hard to fathom. This hasn’t been put to the test yet on a national level, but the states that have enacted gay marriage have no seen large protests. With an increasing number of Republican lawmakers coming out in favour of gay marriage, and with 78% of Americans now supporting it, such massive protests seem an unlikely prospect even at a national level.

What’s even more confounding about the extreme reaction in France is that it is an ostensibly non-religious movement. As I’ve written about before, the movement in France appears intent on focusing on the ‘goodness’ of the family rather than the ‘badness’ of gay people, perhaps learning a lesson from the way the openly homophobic anti-gay-marriage movement in the US has come to be perceived.

But more than being a public relations tactic, I think the non-religious character of France’s anti-gay-marriage movement says something profound about France. Unlike in the US and other very religious countries, the extreme antipathy against gay marriage by a portion of French society seems to be not about religion but about obedience to the state and society.

Unlike its more ‘individualist’ neighbour across the channel, France is a more ‘collectivist’ society. There are very demanding expectations about an individuals loyalty to the state and fidelity to family. Thus, something that deviates from the norm is considered far more threatening in France than it is in the UK.

Of course this is just a personal theory. But I am at a loss for how else to explain the violent, dramatic resistance to gay marriage in France. What's even more notable is that there are many young people in their 20s amongst the protestors, bucking the generation gap trend elsewhere in the world. Even a full half of religious evangelicals in America between the ages of 18 and 29 support gay marriage.

Yes France has a long tradition of public protest that does not exist in many other countries, and in February there was a Paris demonstration of comperable size in support of gay marriage. But the French love of protest cannot in itself explain the depth of feeling here. How is it that French people can feel so strongly about this issue that they would use their children as human shields in a protest? How is it that the objectors could become so belligerent that the police would have to use tear gas on the crowd?

These are questions that should prompt some soul-searching in French society. This is an ugly image of the country being sent out to the rest of the world. But is it an inaccurate one?


Captain Kid said...

Then why were there no protests in "collectivist" societies that enacted same-sex marriage? Portugal and Spain are anything but Anglophone individualist societies. I think it has other reasons.

Harry Seldon said...

Unfortunatly, I think France has had a long pro nationalist and xenophobic history. These right wing movements, some of which claim to be religious (pro pre Vatican II concil and therefore not so long ago considered as sects even by the Church itself) have had all the time they wanted to grow and prosper, with people now in their 50's having raised their children in those types of beliefs. the problem, I think, comes from the fact that in France, there is a tendancy of playing the ostrutch (I put my head in the sand, therefore what I cannot see must not exist) and that is why these movmeents were allowed to prosper. People seemed surprised today but it is simply the result of people prefering to ignore these extremist movements rather than taking them into account. I might be wrong, but being French myself, it's something I've grown to getting used to see in this country, something I don't remember being faced with in the UK or the US.
In the end, France wants to promote an image of an open country, craddle of humanism and people's rights, but I'm afraid it has now long gone astray from that idealism.