The introduction of same-sex marriage in May 2013 was, without a doubt, the most important LGBTQ rights victory in France since 1982, when the age of consent was equalized for heterosexual and homosexual relations.*
In the year the law was adopted, beginning with the first ceremony at the Hôtel de Ville in the Mediterranean city of Montpellier on May 29, 7,367 same-sex marriages were registered in France. (That same year, an additional 6,000 gay couples entered into a pacte civil de solidarité, or PACS, a contractual form of civil partnership that has been available to couples, regardless of gender, since 1999.) In 2014, 10,000 new marriages were registered, giving new life to an institution that has been in decline over the last decade.
Same-sex marriage has made gay people feel “less outcast,” Anthony Roux, vice president of SOS Homophobie, a group that records and reports homophobic and transphobic discrimination and violence and provides support to victims, told me. “They feel more included in society. This is a good thing for everyone in France, LGBT or not. It’s a law that will have a very good impact on the lives of LGBT people in the long run.”
But this major victory had unforeseen consequences. The almighty resistance to the idea of same-sex marriage, with La Manif Pour Tous (a collective of groups opposed to same-sex marriage and adoption) organizing demonstrations that brought hundreds of thousands of people out onto the streets of Paris, took the wind out of François Hollande’s presidency within its first year and halted the momentum behind the LGBTQ rights movement.
Beyond marriage, Roux explained that the issues of vital importance right now are: access to artificial insemination for lesbian couples; making it easier for trans people to change their gender for legal purposes and removing the requirement that they undergo sterilization before their preferred gender identity is recognized; and removing the indefinite ban on blood donation for men who have had sex with men. With Hollande’s popularity at a record low and all his political capital spent, however, no progress on these matters can be expected anytime soon.
The opponents of LGBTQ rights “will never be as visible as they were during the same-sex marriage controversy,” Roux says, but they did enable the comeback of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who won the leadership of the opposition Les Républicains party in part because of his defense of the “traditional” family. Same-sex marriage is “humiliating families and humiliating people who love the family,” the thrice-married Sarkozy said in September 2014; in November he announced that he would repeal the Taubira law, as the marriage equality legislation is known in France, if he is elected again in 2017.
Marriage equality has also hastened the pace at which gay and lesbian people are assimilating into wider French society. There wasn’t much of a culture of queer distinctiveness to begin with, at least not in the way it is understood in the United States. In France, communautés (communities) and political lobbies are considered anti-French and contrary to the workings of an egalitarian republic, while the notion of being queer or fluid isn’t very well developed. The French attitude to sex and relationships as private matters also comes into play.
But Paul Parant, web editor at the French gay magazine Têtu, believes that the struggle to make marriage equality happen—a fight that was “really ugly, really painful, really long” and above all unexpected—caused French LGBTQ people to quickly depoliticize and retreat. Most hurtful were those accusations of communautarisme (communitarianism), the idea that gay marriage represented a special interest and not an attempt by LGBTQ people to enjoy the same rights as everyone else.
“There is a sense that you cannot be completely French if you belong to a community,” Parant told me. “In America, community is a positive word, but for the French, it’s somewhat scary.”
Assimilation is also evident in the curious relationship between gays and the Front National, Marine Le Pen’s far-right party. Once considered taboo, a recent poll suggests that support for the FN is now higher in Paris among homosexual and bisexual voters than among heterosexuals. The party’s higher echelons are lousy with gays. Florian Philippot, FN’s vice president, was outed by the tabloid magazine Closer late last year, around the same time that Le Pen appointed Sébastien Chenu, founder of the LGBTQ rights organization GayLib, to be her “cultural adviser.”
“Marine Le Pen promises a clear change and everyone wants a clear change—it’s bullshit of course,” Parant says, noting that the FN is currently the only political movement with any momentum. Le Pen has redefined her party as the last defender of republicanism and French nationalism, attractive to those seeking to dodge the charge of communautarisme. Le Pen has also been successful in drawing a connection between Arab and Muslim immigration and the security of other minorities, specifically Jews and gays.
“She said it once, only once, but everyone kept repeating it, that she would defend Jews and gays against the Arabs. But it worked, it just worked. People are buying into it,” Parant said.
I sat down with Parant in Têtu’s office in central Paris two days before the magazine was put into liquidation by the courts, having filed for bankruptcy in March and failed to find new investors. Pierre Bergé—Yves Saint Laurent’s life partner—who spent handsomely on the magazine’s high-quality art and fashion layouts and its nationwide advertising campaigns, founded Têtu in 1995. The magazine became widely known and helped to boost LGBTQ visibility, but it never made money. In 2013, Bergé sold Têtu to publisher Jean-Jacques Augier, whose pockets weren’t deep enough to save a magazine that lost around 1 million euros in 2014. Têtu, in Parant’s view, is another casualty of assimilation.
The Russian revolutionary writer Alexander Herzen once observed that at the death of contemporary forms of social order, the departing world leaves behind not an heir, but a pregnant widow. “Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.”
With marriage equality now the law of the land, the old order, where gays and lesbians were excluded from one of society’s most important institutions, has died. Thousands of same-sex couples have married since May 29, 2013, and whatever Sarkozy might say about it, the Taubira law isn’t going anywhere. This by itself is a wonderful thing, but with French gays assimilating, community politics changing, old institutions dying, and the Marais gayborhood shrinking, LGBTQ people in France are in the middle of Herzen’s long night before the pregnant widow’s due date. What her child will look like remains to be seen.
* Correction, Sept. 16, 2015: This piece originally stated that France had decriminalized homosexuality in 1982.