27 May 2013.
Mother's Day in France, 26 May, saw the third in a series of massive demonstrations in opposition to same-sex marriage. After nine months of controversy, the legislation authorizing gay marriage had become law a little more than a week earlier. No matter what forms they may take, the issues behind this movement are not about to be resolved.
It would take a leap of faith to believe the organizers' claim that the latest march in Paris brought out a million demonstrators. But even if their numbers were only 150,000, as the police claim, or two or three times more, it represents the convergence of distinct political streams and ideologies in an aggressive movement to take French society backward.
The departure points for the three feeder marches into the afternoon rally were indicative of the crowd's composition. Whereas "leftist" and union marches often begin in Paris' historically poorer east side, two of the three left from neighbourhoods on the western edge of the city that are not only well-off but known for being nearly all-white and particularly conservative in social as well as political terms – bastions of a particularly French brand of elite Catholicism that is often associated, in popular culture, with squeaky-clean flaxen-haired children regardless of the reality.
The fighting with police in days previous to this march and in the twilight after its official end was not on a large scale for Paris, but it did demonstrate the high level of political as well as physical combativeness that marks this movement. About 350 people were detained – many demonstrators sought to be arrested. There were sporadic but thoroughly vicious beatings of journalists, apparently taken as symbols of an alien culture and easier targets than the riot police. While some of the movement's leaders have tried to distance themselves from "violence", instead of remonstrating with the young men with knapsacks full of rocks and bottles, the crowd sheltered them and served as their base for attacks. Mild-looking couples with children in tow encouraged these thugs, and priests (and at least one bishop) smiled beatifically at them. There were a few jokes comparing their hooded sweatshirts with the garb worn by monks. There has also been a revival of assaults on people taken for gay in various parts of the city. For some gay couples, walking hand in hand is no longer just normal but an act of defiance.
Its proponents call it "the biggest social movement France has known since May 1968". At this point that is certainly not the case and may be wishful thinking, but it is an expression of the movement's ambitions: to turn back what it decries as a "change in civilization" that began with that youth rebellion 45 years ago, and restore a morality based not on "permissiveness" and the "primacy of freedoms and rights" but giving priority to "duties and responsibilities, especially toward children." That "responsibility" is to restore the traditional family in a country where that configuration is no longer typical.
Certainly the general sentiment of unease and uncertainty about the future introduced by France's share of the European financial crisis is a big factor in setting the stage for this movement. But half-hearted attempts to link it to economic issues – for instance the slogan "Jobs not gays" – have found no resonance. This movement is not like the Indignados in Spain, although it draws on the same anxious spirit of the times and longing for a more stable past, but rather an opposite reaction. It is not a protest about a lowering of living standards. Rather it sees itself, in the words of a columnist for the mainstream Catholic newspaper La Croix from whom the above quotes are drawn, as a clash between "opposing world outlooks". (Dominique Quino, 26 May 2013)
Historically, and consciously in the minds of many leaders and participants, this movement is rooted in a centuries-old struggle in France about the place of religion, social values and the form of the state. Several thousand people carried flags with a cross and heart ("the Sacred Heart of Jesus") of the Vendée rebellion, a peasant war led by the monarchist clergy against the new-born French Republic in 1793. Others carried symbols of political organizations harking back to Marshal Petain, the leader of a regime that, although installed during the Nazi occupation of France, represented and remains the banner of a thoroughly French and Catholic fascism.
Many marchers were associated with a Catholic fundamentalist movement addicted to the Mass in Latin and a virulent anti-Semitism (the historic Catholic position that the Jews should be held responsible for the death of Jesus Christ – although the Church itself officially dropped this idea, the group was brought back into the folds of the Church by ex-Pope Benedict). One of the initial organizers of this anti-gay marriage movement was Bruno Dary, a retired general associated with the Secret Army Organization, a 1960s group of high-level officers who carried out a campaign of bombings and assassinations and tried to launch a coup to keep Algeria French.
Yet most of the marchers would probably have taken offence at being called fascists. The movement's name, "A demonstration for all", illustrates the deliberate contradictoriness and ambiguity that has helped broaden its appeal. It was meant to simultaneously oppose the gay rights slogan "Marriage for all" and indicate tolerance and openness. Officially, the demonstration was against homophobia, although it was also against the concept of equal rights. Many marchers would insist that some of their best friends are gay and that the problem is not sexuality but marriage and especially parenthood. In general they considered that they were marching to "defend the family" and not necessarily mindful of the similarity between their slogans and those of Petain (who established Mother's Day in France).
What were they defending the "family" against? Why could anyone say, even half jokingly, that this might be France's "last Mother's Day"? The most prominent and unifying banners were coloured either pink or blue, indicating opposition to "the theory of gender" (that gender roles are not biologically inherent) and proclaiming "Defend biology". There were rhyming variations on the theme of a picture of a baby with the words, "I don't want a mother named Robert."
The official arguments and what some demonstrators say on initial questioning might seem strange if taken literally. There is a vision that sees the legalization of same-sex marriage as the first step in an "inexorable" (a word often repeated) process leading to allowing gay couples to adopt (which could happen), then artificial insemination to produce children for same-sex couples (not impossible), then the use of surrogate mothers to produce babies (illegal in France) and legions of "Ukrainian women" (a difficult to define but clearly derogatory reference to foreigners) manufacturing babies instead of French mothers, and finally the extinction of "motherhood" as a biological phenomenon. This process, it is said, will lead to a loss of "filiation" – future babies might not know who their biological parents are, and therefore the "heritage" that defines them.
That gay marriage should become the focus of this movement was unexpected. Paris has one of Europe's biggest annual Gay Pride parades and the mayor is openly gay. Same-sex couples have been able to enter into civil unions, with most of the perks of marriage, since 1999, and that has not been a big issue. In fact, such civil unions have become very popular throughout society, uniting far more heterosexual couples than gays.
Marriage itself is not what it used to be in France. Half of all marriages end in divorce and it may be that only a minority of children live with their two biological, married parents. Moreover, a great and growing number of people have dispensed with the institution and live together informally, including, for example, President François Holland. This is a change from previous generations when discrete extra-marital affairs and prostitution were considered acceptable as long as everyone stayed married. Still, the secularism of the French state means that its law distinguishes between marriage as a contract entered into at town hall, where weddings are celebrated, and marriage as a religious ceremony that carries no legal weight and decreasing social relevance. This secularism is explicitly opposed by some in this movement and implicitly by its goals and character.
While the focal point may be surprising, its ideological content is not. It is a defence – to the death, some participants say – of patriarchy in its most traditional form, especially the definition of women as above all mothers. This is a strictly defined, highly oppressive gender role that the development of the economy and society itself is tearing apart. Unlike the mid-20th century when France was still a religious country with a large rural population and women were just beginning to get legally free of their husband's authority, today very few working-age women are not part of the workforce. It may be that for many people gay marriage – even more than questions of sexuality, birth control and abortion – sharply poses the question of the traditional sex roles they consider the sacred heart of society as they wish it to be.
In a deeper sense, this movement reflects the tension inherent in the position of women in French society (even more so than some other imperialist societies), where women have education, jobs, paid maternity leave, organized childcare and so on, and sexual discrimination is illegal, while they are considered the primary caregiver in every way that counts. (For instance, many French working women stay home on Wednesday, when there is no school – a schedule that was originally meant to allow kids to attend religious education class that day.) At the same time, as much or more than in any other society in the world, the idea that women should embrace a role as sex objects and judge themselves by their desirability to men is unchallenged to a degree that might be considered shocking in some other countries.
Further, the movement's obsession with "protecting filiation" is not just a matter of curiosity or health concerns regarding one's background. It is another indication of patriarchy – after all, since private property (and therefore inheritance) first arose, the rules governing women's reproduction and sexuality have been determined by the man's need to know which children were "his". This "filiation" mania also reflects a concern with ancestry freighted with racist and nationalist implications. There is an extremely medieval tinge to the whole conception of the primacy of ancestry and genetically-defined "peoplehood", even when dressed in the pseudo-modern attire of "Defence of Biology" and "Respect for Human Ecology", as if gender roles were defined by "nature" and not society and ideology, and as if by nature they did not mean god.
The traditional right finds itself divided and under attack from the anti-gay marriage movement for its "compromising" attitude in allowing this legislation to pass at the very moment when the governing "left" finds itself most discredited for the falseness of its promises to end austerity and corruption. A few politicians on the "left" are changing camp to join this movement. Some far right organizations are calling this moment "The French Spring", seeking to borrow the passion and anti-regime content of the Arab Spring and infuse it with Catholic fundamentalism and the reactionary nationalism of a colonial and imperialist power.
On the eve of the latest march, one of the main ideologues of the contemporary far right in France, a decorated academic who was once a member of the Secret Army Organization, went up to the alter in Notre Dame Cathedral, the heart of French Catholicism, and shot himself in front of many hundreds of people attending mass.
Dominique Venner left a note on the altar professing his Catholicism but calling for the French to "wake up" to the need for self-sacrifice and broaden the target of the movement to include immigration and other threats to the "identity" of France. This discourse was common enough in the anti-gay marriage marches. It was not remarkable that people like Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front whose grittier populism is not quite in fashion, publicly expressed sympathy with his gesture. But it was notable that other public figures who claim to oppose his ideas voiced admiration for his "courage". In fact, in his comments the head of the Socialist Party treated Venner with respect.
It was left to the feminist group Femen to greet his act with the contempt it deserved. (Even though the validity of young women exposing their breasts as a progressive political tactic is disputable, especially in a country like France where, as people sometimes say, women uncovering their bodies in public is as compulsory as covering them under Islamist rule.)
The day after Venner's suicide, a woman approached the Notre Dame altar, dropped her trench-coat to reveal her nude torso and, pulling out a ridiculous toy gun, put it to her mouth and mockingly imitated Venner's suicide. On her body were the words, "Fascists rest in hell." This was particularly appropriate not only because "official society" found it an inappropriate moment to speak of Venner in such terms, but also because the Catholic right and the Church itself, so ready to expel people for divorce, conveniently seemed to forget that in their theology suicide is a mortal sin. The Catholic establishment either spoke well of him or tried to ignore the whole affair.
In the face of these events the governing Socialist Party and the "left" in general have reacted with silence, passivity, appeals to order (and the use of the riot police) and backsliding (ex Socialist Party presidential candidate Segolene Royal advanced that maybe it was a mistake to support same-sex marriage). There has been a total inability and refusal to engage with, let alone defeat, this movement in the realm of politics and especially ideology.
This movement is a continuation of a long-term refusal to accept the progressive aspects of the Enlightenment, especially insofar as there has been some separation of church and state and a challenge to some of religious dogma (including, not incidentally, the divine right of kings) and some reactionary traditions. Often this has involved a struggle around the form of state (monarchy, fascism or a republic), but the most essential point for the future of society concerns the essential character – the property and other social relations – embodied by that state. And this last point is the ground on which the Socialists, "left" and partisans of the French republic, patriarchy and fatherland of all stripes cannot and do not want to fight.
When the "Catho-faschos", as they are called in France, talk about a moral crisis in society that many people recognize and a status quo that individuals all across society find alienating, the best that the "left" can do is to defend the intolerable patriarchal, imperialist status quo – and hope that no one brings up their own revealing stance regarding the accused serial rapist Dominique Strauss-Kahn. His kind of extreme and unrepentant misogyny is at least as oppressive and dehumanizing to women as the religious fundamentalists, who like him consider women conveniently equipped mammals and not full human beings. The worst disgrace, however, is not what he did and defended but that the party as a whole – and most of the French "political class" of all stripes – didn't really consider it a moral problem.
The "left" cannot wage an effective fight on the field of morals, and they cannot and will not do anything but try to administer the social relations and imperialist set-up that the "Catho-faschos" are fighting to save from its own moral crisis. What is needed here is a much more profound "clash of world outlooks", not in the sense of contending varieties of hypocrisy and patriarchy but of a revolutionary critique and real opposition to all of them – a vision and fight for a society whose shared values and morality are liberating and not oppressive.