Gay-marriage opponents claim revolutionary mantle
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Opponents of a law legalising same-sex marriage have staged some of France's largest-ever rallies. Confronted with an obstinate government, some have adopted a more combative strategy and a new highly charged moniker: the "French Spring".
This week French news channels widely broadcast scenes of anti-riot police repelling protesters from barricades and dispersing rebellious teens along Paris’s iconic Champs-Elysées. Sunday’s clashes might have been written off as mundane in France, a country used to union strikes and left-wing activism, but this time it was religious conservatives receiving mouthfuls of pepper spray.
Confronted by a Socialist Party-led government unwilling to backtrack on its efforts to legalise marriage and adoption for same-sex couples, and polls showing the law's growing acceptance among the French, certain opponents of gay marriage are opting for a more combative tone and strategy. Some have started calling their movement the “French Spring”, referring to the regime-toppling Arab uprisings of recent years.
“We get the impression that marches gathering thousands of people were for nothing, that a petition that gathered 700,000 signatures was for nothing, and that the debate in parliament was extremely one-sided,” said Béatrice Bourges, a leader of the anti-gay marriage camp, who proudly brandishes the new label “French Spring”.
Known as the Taubira law in France, after Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, the marriage equality bill has been approved in the lower-house National Assembly and is expected to sail through the Senate next week. But opponents, a mix of traditional Catholics and far-right groups, promise to keep fighting a law they say will fundamentally weaken French society.
Sunday’s clashes broke out when some protesters attending the march against the law tried to flout a ban on demonstrating on the Champs-Elysées. They were hit with batons and doused with Mace as they tried to cross police lines. Others who succeeded in reaching the famous avenue were forcibly removed by security forces.
Somewhere amidst the disorder, the 69-year-old leader of France’s Christian Democratic Party Christine Boutin inadvertently wound up with a taste of police pepper spray, too. That event prompted a call from right-wing circles for the resignation of Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who is in charge of French police forces.
Béatrice Bourges told FRANCE 24 that a dozen lawsuits had been filed against the prefect by “victims” of the clashes, and more were likely to follow.
The making of a showdown
The invasion of the Champs-Elysées was not condoned by those who planned Sunday’s march. Participants, whom organisers claim numbered nearly one-and-a-half million (police estimates were closer to 300,000) were urged to avoid places designated as off-limits by police and to shun all violence.
“Making sure everyone is safe is an enormous responsibility, and our first priority,” Tugdual Derville, a spokesman for the anti-gay marriage camp, told FRANCE 24. He blamed the police for confining the massive rally to an inadequately small area, while admitting that “marginal” groups had allowed frustrations to get the best of them.
However, the decision to defy police orders was hardly a spontaneous reaction to overcrowding. A vocal faction of the anti-gay marriage movement, including certain high-profile leaders like Bourges and Boutin, had encouraged the idea in the week leading up to the event -- and even while tempers were spilling over on Sunday.
Judging by emails circulated among Catholic parish groups (leaked to Le Monde daily), public messages on websites, and videos posted on the Internet, it is clear that the intent of the unauthorised invasion was to occupy the Champs-Elysées, a stone’s throw away from the Elysée Palace, President François Hollande’s official residence.
A video posted on YouTube ten days before the march urged participants to “occupy” the iconic avenue, showing teens training for the crucial moment with tents and camping supplies. The clip ends with a montage of pictures from key popular movements of the 20th century, including the Egyptian revolutionaries camped in Tahrir Square in 2011 and the “Indignados” occupying Madrid’s Plaza del Sol in 2012.
“The reference to the Arab Spring comes from the shared experiences of resistance,” said Bourges, who said President Hollande had been elected democratically but was choosing to “disregard all those who disagree with him.”
A diverse group, but also divided?
The comparison between France’s energetic anti-gay marriage movement and the Arab Spring and Occupy movements were promptly dismissed by voices on both sides of the fence.
“It is clearly a false comparison and usurpation of the term. The Arab Spring and the Indignados are emancipation movements by people who want access to civil rights and liberties, ” said Thomas Coutrot, spokesman for Attac, a left-leaning NGO that backs global social movements.
“These are people who want to bar homosexuals from attaining the same rights other members of society already enjoy,” he told FRANCE 24.
Even conservatives are at odds over the term “French Spring”, and the new push toward civil disobedience appeared to be creating a schism within France’s anti-gay-marriage movement in the wake of Sunday’s clashes. Tugdual Derville said the mainstream anti-gay-marriage movement did not own up to the name.
“We’ve grown to become a very large and diverse movement. The radicalisation among some is due to the frustration, the injustice people feel when they are not respected and their opinions are cast aside,” he offered as a reason for the new, hard-line approach espoused by some of his fellow activists.
Derville said that since Sunday, Bourges had been stripped of her role as a spokesperson for the movement because she had promoted the unsanctioned move to storm the Champs-Elysées, putting the security of protesters and others at risk.
Bourges tried to play down the decision to demote her. “It doesn’t bother me. I can’t be the spokesperson of everything,” she said in reference as her new, prominent role at the head of the "French Spring".
Despite their diverging views on how to move their campaign forward, both Derville and Bourges appear to be as determined as ever. As French gay and lesbian couples begin making wedding plans, the two activists must decide if theirs is a marriage worth saving.