Many influential French figures, including a good number of former Marxists, have taken refuge in a sort of cult of French national identity. One pillar of the cult is the Republic, with a capital R, which they associate with strict civic equality, even stricter secularism in public life, and educational institutions capable of molding a single, cohesive citizenry. But another pillar is the idea of France as the homeland of sophisticated habits, taste, and culture, which in turn depends, as many intellectuals explain, on the romance, beauty, and mystery generated by the play of sexual difference. In 2011, this position initially, and embarrassingly, led a good number of intellectuals to defend Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the International Monetary Fund chief and presidential hopeful, as a gallant “seducer,” rather than a sexual predator, after a New York hotel employee accused him of rape.
This strong emphasis on the complementary roles of men and women has had a remarkable effect on the French marriage debate. Unlike in the United States, most opponents of marriage equality have had relatively little to say about the morality of homosexual sex acts, or about threats to the “institution of marriage” in general. Instead, they speak above all about children, insisting that a psychologically healthy family life rests on the union of a man and woman. Back in 1999, when the French Parliament approved a form of civil union, much of the opposition centered on this issue.
This spring, precisely the same concerns have dominated the manifestos against “marriage for all” issued by groups of law professors and psychologists. And interviews with ordinary protesters have shown just how effectively the arguments of philosophers have filtered down to street level, with one figure after another explaining their opposition to the reform in the same way. To quote a popular protest banner: “Un père et une mère c’est élémentaire” (“A father and a mother is elementary”). And the 60 percent support for same-sex marriage has not changed the fact that a majority still favors banning child adoption by homosexual couples. In short, although religion and homophobia obviously fed into the recent protests, the rhetoric employed by the opposition has trickled down from the intellectuals (as one might, indeed, expect in France).