In an earlier post, I wrote about the importance of the intersection of cultural and institutional factors in understanding the cross-national politics of marriage equality. One important part of this context is attitudinal shifts regarding gay marriage. According to a PEW survey, American public opinion has moved markedly in support of gay marriage in the four years since California’s Proposition 8. Recent U.S. Supreme Court hearings have brought out demonstrators on both sides of the debate. On a CNN international report (March 27, 2013), one opponent of gay marriage proclaimed that this is an issue for the people, not the court. According to Jeff Toobin of CNN, conservative justices have recognized the “growing popularity” of gay marriage and have argued in favor of using the democratic process (especially at the state level) rather than the non-elected judiciary.
Many countries have seen shifts in public opinion in favor of gay marriage (some more dramatically than others). France, like other countries, saw changing attitudes throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Support for gay marriage hovered at around 50 percent even after France recognized civil unions in 2006 (Canadian public opinion was at about 50 percent when the government passed the Civil Marriage Act in 2005 which redefined the traditional definition of marriage). In terms of popular support, it seems that the French public, like many other western publics, was moving towards increasing favorability. At the very least, France is not a case where a clear majority of the public is against gay marriage. So what has sparked such massive protests against the French government’s proposed legislation?
The gay marriage cases in the UK and France remind us of the ways in which marriage equality is tied to existing public opinion and policy legacies involving sexual behavior, family, fertility, and adoption. Is it the case that opponents are mobilized more so with regards to the specific policy proposal than they are to the more generic idea of gay marriage? A CNN report suggested that the French public and even politicians who support gay marriage are much less open to same-sex adoption. A more recent New York Times article notes that “Many opponents have focused on a provision that would allow same-sex couples to adopt children. Some opponents also say they fear the bill would eventually lead to the legalization of artificial insemination for lesbian couples or surrogate mothers for male couples.” It begs the question as to whether disentangling marriage and adoption at the policy level would have led to a different public response. It also suggests that the public’s tolerance or acceptance of gay couples is more limited than what is assumed (particularly when looking beyond the question about whether one supports gay marriage or not).
Once again this last Sunday, riot police contained protesters who oppose France’s “marriage for everyone” bill. According to The Guardian, “Hundreds of thousands of people – conservative activists, children, retirees, priests, many bussed in from the French provinces – converged on the capital on Sunday in a last-ditch attempt to stop the bill… Police fired more teargas but were unable to block the crowds from spilling on to the road. ‘Hollande, resignation!’ the protesters chanted, before breaking into the French anthem, La Marseillaise.” The Telegraph reports that “Banners held up along the march route read: “We want work not gay marriage,” and “No to gayxtremism.””
In a country where same-sex civil unions are recognized and where public opinion in January 2012 (according to a Reuters report), was 63 percent in favor of gay marriage and 49 percent with favorable attitudes towards gay adoption, what makes this legislation “gayxtremist?” It is unlikely that these demonstrations will derail the legislation given that Hollande appears unwavering and consensus is that the senate will not vote against the legislation. However, demonstrations have been successful at eroding public support for the legislation according to The Guardian.