France: Marriage puts a nation asunder

23 April 2013
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Frankfurt

On April 23, France became the ninth European state to extend marriage and adoption rights to homosexual couples. However, unlike other countries, the measures provoked fierce hostility from sections of the public. A German newspaper tries to explain why.

In truth, he wanted to reconcile the French with each other. At least, that’s what François Hollande promised in his election campaign. Instead, in his first year in office he has already pitted his countrymen against each other with the “marriage for all” and fanned once again what the 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 between those who justify this “secularism” in the name of “progress” and “modernity” and those who see it as an attack on the God-given and established social order, smoulders on.

Although “both Frances” have undergone many changes, the conflict that is dividing French society breaks out again and again – like now, over the planned introduction of homosexual marriage. [...]

Restless nation

Since the left-wing government under Prime Minister [Jean-Marc] Ayrault introduced the bill, which should give same-sex couples the right to marry and to adopt, the nation has been restless. [...] Not only in the capital, Paris, but across the country, the defenders of the traditional family have got organised. “There is nothing better for a child than a father and a mother” is written on their banners. Non-churchgoers have also joined the protest movement, which is actively supported by the Catholic Church and its network of diverse schools, communities and associations, while the highest representatives of Islam and Judaism in France have rejected gay marriage unanimously. The opposition to the bill is also drawing in a generation of young French people who so far have kept a low profile in matters of politics and religion.

The worry they share is that, by eroding the traditional marriage and the family, the secular left is abandoning one of the foundations of western Christian society. Justice Minister Christiane Taubira’s promise of a “new civilisation”, which will come about with the “marriage for all”, sounds to them like a confirmation of their fears.

Looking back to the origins of secularism can shed some light on the abrasiveness and passion of the gay marriage conflict. In no other European country has religion been so radically displaced from social life as it was in the France of the late 19th Century.

Public prayers are prohibited

After the de-Christianisation of the French Revolution had reached its gruesome climax in 1793, it had looked at first as if as a restoration of Catholicism might follow on the Revolution. The “fathers of secularism”, Jules Ferry and Léon Gambetta, saw themselves as proponents of the Enlightenment. France’s defeat in the Franco-German War of 1870-71 confirmed them in their belief that future generations would have to receive a secular education. [...]

In 1882 a law was passed to expurge the Catechism, biblical history and any reference to other religions from the textbooks. Since that time, French state schools have had no religious education on the curriculum.

Public prayers were banned, and Christian symbols remain banned in all public buildings such as schools, hospitals and courts. In 1884, the right to divorce was introduced (again). [...] Part of France, though, opposed this shift. Although compulsory state education was also introduced in 1882, many French people, especially in rural areas, refused to send their children to the “school without God”.

Violent reaction

Violent confrontations occurred in the first half of 1906, after which the secularisation of the institutions proceeded apace. In 1904, the congregations were banned from teaching, which led to the exile of thousands of religious people from France. Unilaterally, the government announced the Concordat.

In December 1905, the law on the separation of the churches and the state was finally adopted. Since then, the state no longer financially supported religious organisations and also levied no church taxes. An exception to this are the three Départements (Alsace-Lorraine) that belonged to Germany in 1905, which were and remain under the Concordat to this day.

The progressive secularisation, as well as the decline of anti-Clericism, have helped Catholics come to terms with “secularism”. The government’s attack on marriage, however, has aroused the historically ingrained sense of vulnerability of all Christian institutions. One silent irony here is that the young demonstrators against “marriage for all” wear the red caps of liberty of the Jacobins – once the symbol of freedom of the revolutionaries, worn by that part of France that defended human rights, progress, and the separation of church and state against the faction fighting for the restoration and clericalism.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer

Factual or translation error? Tell us.