In Paris, a far-right essayist committed suicide in front of hundreds of tourists this week – after criticizing the legalization of gay marriage on a right-wing radio station. This postcard from John Laurenson in Paris.
At four o'clock on Tuesday afternoon (21.05.2013), an elderly man called Dominique Venner walked into Notre-Dame Cathedral. He made his way through the crowds of tourists and faithful until he got to the altar. He placed a letter there, drew out a revolver, put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
The gay marriage debate has been really special in France, to the point of splitting opinion throughout the country.
French still taking to the streets in protest
Huge numbers of people are still marching in this country in protest at same sex marriage – even though the law has now been voted by parliament and approved by the Constitutional Council.
Britain's Guardian newspaper said these have been "the biggest conservative and rightwing street protests in 30 years." This was misleading. They have been the biggest street protests of any sort for thirty years. They haven't been terribly conservative or right-wing. Not, at least, in the way you might expect. In fact the 'Manif pour tous' – 'Demo for all', so-called in response to French President Francois Hollande's slogan 'Marriage for all', has radically changed what it means to be conservative or right-wing.
Nine months ago, everybody thought Francois Hollande's one-line manifesto promise of gay marriage, gay adoption and medically assisted procreation for lesbian couples would slip through the French legislature like a child down one of those water slides at the swimming pool. Like the British Conservative Party, most members of the conservative UMP were against, but many of their leaders were worried about looking old-fashioned or anti-gay, and so were not expected to put up much opposition.
Surprising bedfellows: Catholic Church and an ex-punk lead protest
But Mr Hollande was to be denied his joyful slide ride. The Catholic Church moved first. After decades of strategic retreat on social issues, it decided early on to put up a fight. Archbishop Vingt-Trois wrote a "prayer for the family" for the Feast of the Assumption, which was said in French churches in summer, and the Vatican followed suit soon after.
A movement was born. With a very unlikely leader at its head. She goes by the name of Frigide Barjot, a play on the name of the 1960s sex symbol Brigitte Bardot. A fifty-year old ex-punk with a taste for hoodies. A Catholic convert, who, not so long ago, was an all-out party girl who liked, when at parties, to swing from the chandeliers in order to show her knickers. So she says. And why doubt it? Like for the feeding of the five thousand, there were a lot of witnesses.
Frigide and the bishops – though diverging in their after-dinner behavior – adopted a common line on the gay marriage issue. It wasn't about homosexuality as such. Being gay, said Frigide, was fine. Gay couples were fine. It was the getting married that wasn't, because getting married is linked with starting a family, something homosexual couples aren't equipped to do.
The new law would inexorably lead, its opponents said, to babies carried by surrogate mothers being told they have two fathers and babies born thanks to artificial insemination being told they have two mothers. The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender movement said it was about gay rights. The antis said it was about the right of children to have a father and a mother. Even the children of divorced parents have a father and a mother, they argued, and this is the way it should be.
Betrayal of the 'gay lifestyle?'
The government says their law won't change anything for the vast majority of people, the antis say it re-defines marriage and therefore affects all married people. That's why they're still demonstrating. And so are gay people. There's a gay anti-gay-marriage group called Homovox and another called ‘Plus Gai Sans Mariage' – ‘More Gay Without Marriage', which promotes the idea that gay marriage is a betrayal of the true gay lifestyle.
The atmosphere at all these demos is, in fact, fairly gay, with pink balloons and Britney Spears played really loud. If it wasn't for the presence of old blokes with anoraks and thermos flasks who've come in on coaches from Brittany, you'd think this was an event organized by the famous Champs-Elysées nightclub 'Queen'.
Those old men from Brittany are how the pro-gay marriage pressure groups, politicians and much of the media have portrayed opponents of the bill: essentially as a bunch of homophobic, fascist old gits. But the story is more complicated than that. The demos have in fact been remarkably youthful and good-humored. Extraordinarily, given the numbers of people that have attended them, homophobic slogans, chanted, sung or written on placards have been absent.
Confusing the debate
It is therefore a bit of a public relations disaster for the anti-gay marriage movement that a man who stood for extreme right wing values, has become a martyr to their cause.
Dominique Venner was a 78-year old extreme-right activist, an essay writer and historian who used to belong to the Secret Armed Organization. The OAS by its French acronym used terrorism in the early 1960s to oppose Algerian independence. It bombed its enemies and attempted to overthrow and/or assassinate General De Gaulle. The film 'The Day of the Jackal' was about the OAS.
In today's French debate about gay marriage, his description of the thing as "vile", hours before he killed himself, was seriously off-message. For pro-gay marriage groups, this – like the beating up of a gay Dutchman in the north of Paris a few weeks ago – is the true face of the anti-same-sex marriage movement. But the leaders of this surprising new political force that has emerged in France these past nine months think otherwise, and have answers to that.
A few weeks ago, asked if he wasn't embarrassed that far-right leader Marine Le Pen was also anti-gay marriage, the head of ‘More Gay Without Marriage', Xavier Bongibault, replied that if Marine Le Pen said it was a nice day that wasn't a good enough reason to say that the weather was lousy.
As for Frigide Barjot, she said Venner was not part of her movement. "Our movement is against violence and pro-life," she said. "I shall pray for his soul".
There's one other Frenchman who could use the power of prayer: Francois Hollande. At the beginning, demonstrators happily chanted to the never-married president "Francois, marie-toi!" – Francois, get married. But the mood is very different today, both among those who have always opposed him and those who once supported him. After months and months of often bitter debate, a first legal gay wedding is about to be celebrated in France. He may have got this bill through parliament, but 75 percent of the French electorate think the president is doing a bad job.