France's Gay-Marriage Malaise
France has become the 14th country to approve same-sex marriage. It wasn't easy. The 331-to-225 vote in the National Assembly today culminated weeks of sometimes violent protests against the law, an increase in gay-bashing incidents and a general venting of discontent that opponents dubbed the "French Spring," a questionable reference to the pro-democracy movements that overthrew despots across the Middle East in 2010 and 2011.
Some of the feeling of malaise is easy to attribute. After 11 months of office, President Francois Hollande's Socialist government looks increasingly hapless in its efforts to revive the foundering economy. He has promised to restore growth, jobs and competitiveness and to pare back the state and entitlements by means of a vague formula of tax increases and spending cuts that he defines as "rigor" and whose most distinguishing characteristic is that it is somehow the opposite of German-style austerity.
This nuance is increasingly lost on the French. But what is clear is that his policies aren't working: France is suffering through its most severe economic contraction since 2009, unemployment is at a 15-year high, and most forecasts for 2014 -- including the government's own -- don't indicate much of an improvement.
In any case, while the economic angst may be contributing to the explosion of anger over same-sex marriage, it isn't the explanation. After all, in polls, about 60 percent of the population favors allowing gay marriage.
So, how to explain the "French Spring?" There is a religious component. France is a predominantly Catholic country (about 83 percent of the population) and the church, along with Muslim and Jewish religious authorities, has made clear its opposition to same-sex marriage. It's worth noting, however, that France's historical connection to Catholicism doesn't have much bearing on the practices, beliefs or mores of the French themselves. A report by the Pew Research Center published in March showed that only about 15 percent of French Catholics considered their religion "very important," a lower level than in Germany, Italy and Spain, not to mention the U.S. The French also have the lowest record of church attendance, with only 9 percent of Catholics saying the attend every week.
There also is a faction that appears to be fine with the idea of marriage, but can't accept the subsection of the law that allows same-sex couples to adopt (a close majority of French people, 53 percent, oppose adoption by gay couples). Some have pointed to reports that elements of the far-right have glommed on to the protests, but their numbers are small and the protests are a genuine mass movement.
This surge to defend the sanctity of traditional marriage is all the more puzzling as French people, heterosexual or not, are increasingly unlikely to participate in the institution, even in its civil form. Hollande himself lives in the Elysee Palace in unmarried bliss with his partner Valerie Trierweller. And he had children with his previous long-term partner, Segolene Royal. None of this was even bruited as an impediment to his rise to lead the French state, probably because marriage is less and less of a consideration when it comes to child-rearing: almost 57 percent of kids born in France in 2012 had unmarried parents.
(Max Berley is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)