France Takes Liberty To The Next Level

4.23.2013

By Andrew Belonsky

The French, long America's favorite punchline, are getting the last laugh.

France really showed the United States how it's done today. Despite huge backlash, protests and threats from religious opponents, the National Assembly voted 331-225 to pass marriage equality. There's a lesson for American politicians here. Or at least there should be.

The French Revolution was galvanized in part by the States and the society that resulted from that war and the successive power struggles in the years following — the early 20th Century separation of church and state, for example — in many ways created a more robust, people-centric civil society than the one sowed Stateside. Universal healthcare has long been the norm, robust welfare programs have shrunk poverty and, in terms of LGBT communities, sexual liberalisms have been extended over the years, often earlier than in the States. Sodomy was decriminalized in 1790, 213 years before the U.S. Supreme Court nullified America's, and the French Parliament passed a hate crimes law in 2004, five years before the States did the same. And now they've approved marriage equality ahead of us.

But France is far from perfect. Xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment are worrisome problems, and this debate has shown that far-right groups are intent on using marriage as a reason to wreak havoc. And a shockingly well-organized Catholic Church, the predominant though flagging religious institution in France, proved that religious activists are a force to be reckoned with in Modern France. The numbers they turned out at the drop of a hat dwarf those seen here in the United States, where Evangelicals and to a lesser extent right-wing Catholics seem to have an otherworldly grip on Republicans.

Yes, 225 French lawmakers voted against this marriage bill, but 331 voted for it. The last time it was put up for a vote in the National Assembly, in 2011, same-sex marriage received only 293 favorable votes. Five years prior, in 2006, a parliamentary report recommended keeping a ban on same-sex marriages. American politicians like President Obama, Ohio Senator Rob Portman and countless others have shifted toward supporting marriage equality, but not nearly enough of them are willing to risk electoral backlash by backing same-sex love.

That's clearly not a worry pressing on pro-equality French lawmakers, a group that has received death threats. They simply saw the revolution's promises, promises inspired by the American experience, still needed to be kept. They mustered the gumption to get marriage equality done and now it's getting done — French President François Hollande said he'd sign it into law as soon as a Constitutional review has been completed — and American lawmakers still fighting the inevitable are left looking less like the descendants of revolutionaries who changed the world and more like complacent cowards content with a mission left half-accomplished.

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