2 min

Paris’s multilayered Manif

Breaking down the babble of France's anti-gay-marriage movement

“It’s going to be immense,” Madame Decroix tells us, her eyes shining.

Ross and I are having breakfast in her comfortable if well-worn apartment just off the Champs-Élysées. Our eyes meet over baguettes.

A million people are coming, our B&B host enthusiastically predicts. She’ll have to give us keys to the apartment, she realizes, since it’s likely to be an all-day affair.

Mme Decroix pauses. It seems she rarely goes out anymore. That’s why she hasn’t already given Ross and me keys; she’s always home. Post-retirement, somewhat sheltered. Not that sheltered.

“It’s legal in your country, isn’t it?” she asks suddenly.

I assure her that gay marriage has been legal across Canada since 2005.

The French government needs to focus on the failing economy, Mme Decroix asserts. “We can’t afford this. We will be heard!”

It’s a common refrain among at least some of the participants in the anti-gay marriage rallies that have filled several French streets since the National Assembly voted to legalize gay marriage and adoption on Feb 12. The Senate is expected to conclude its own hearings on the bill April 13.

La priorité c’est Aulnay pas le mariage gay,” one sign declares at the rally later that day, emphasizing the need to focus on job loss in towns like Aulnay, where a Peugeot plant’s imminent closure looms.

It’s March 24 and Ross and I are just in time for the next Manif Pour Tous. Police have shut down the Arc de Triomphe completely; their vans line the surrounding avenues. Organizers insist they’re expecting one million people. The final tally is closer to 300,000, but it’s still enough to fill a five-kilometre stretch to the Grande Arche de la Défense.

Their slogans are mixed: some focus on the economy, others on the children. Morality lurks in the background.

Organizers post a rambling 37-minute press conference on YouTube three days later. “Something unthinkable is happening in France right now,” says brash spokesperson Frigide Barjot. “It’s a movement of conscience for the preservation of the dignity of the human being.”

The rest of her speech is vague on concrete objections to the bill yet demands it be rescinded. One hint objects to artificial insemination rights for all.

Barjot is joined by representatives from various groups, including a white Catholic woman, a black evangelical Christian pastor and a young Muslim woman who says that “family values are central to us” and that Muslims won’t vote for President François Hollande again. A teacher claims that children will lose their fundamental reference points if the bill blurs sexual and gender identity and genealogy.

“We want to be counted and heard,” one man says, echoing Mme Decroix.

What I hear is a babble of significantly different objections. Some trot out the same thinly veiled, save-the-children crap that we hear in Canada. Others raise reasonable, perhaps less homophobic questions of priority in a society struggling to stay solvent. Should the government devote weeks of debate to marriage equalization now, while its economy teeters?

The French have reason to be concerned about their tenuous place in a crumbling eurozone. They also have reason to build an inclusive society. Imagine if that society’s proponents reached out to its less dogmatically anti-gay opponents to acknowledge the bill’s promised social change and to invite them to share, rather than fight, the historic moment.

The next morning at breakfast, Mme Decroix is still beaming. It was wonderful, she says. She got close enough to the front of the rally to take pictures of the organizers, she gushes, basking in the belonging of a movement.

If she were genuinely invited to instead join the movement toward a more inclusive society, I bet she’d be beaming, too. She might even leave the house more often.