France's same-sex marriage debate gathered steam on Wednesday as opposition plans to seek a law allowing same-sex matrimony turned the question into a campaign issue for next month's European Parliament elections. Socialist and Greens party leaders competed with each other over whether to introduce the bill next month or in September, while members of the governing conservative UMP party expressed reservations or outright rejection. France approved civil unions for all couples in 2000, but these arrangements do not come with the usual rights of marriage such as adoption rights, and the tax advantages are still less than that for married heterosexual couples.
Greens leader Noel Mamere launched the debate last month when he said he would marry two gay men in June in his capacity as mayor of a town near Bordeaux. President Jacques Chirac has predicted that parliament would not approve any such reform. A recent survey by Elle magazine indicated 64% of the French are in favor of same-sex marriages, while 49% said they would also approve of gay couples adopting children. And Mariette Sineau, political scientist at the Sciences Po Institute in Paris, said the gay marriage debate could push the ruling right-wing party further into the "old-fashioned" camp in the eyes of many young voters. She said it could also help far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the European elections: "He could claim that he is the only one defending traditional French values."
Analysts said the initiative could prove useful for the Socialists, who are keen to repeat the success they scored in regional elections in March, routing the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin as voters protested against economic reforms and high unemployment. But it also revealed divisions within their party. Two prominent women Socialists expressed reservations about allowing gays to adopt children. "We see a bit of an Americanization of French politics, with this new focus on minority groups," said Paul Bacot, political scientist at the Lyon Sciences Po Institute. "It can benefit the Socialists to win over the gay minority. Participation in the European elections is set to be much less than in national or regional elections, and minority groups tend to be more mobilized to actually cast their vote."
Elisabeth Guigou, who as justice minister in the last left-wing government steered the civil unions bill through parliament, warned against using the issue in the campaign and expressed serious doubts about adoption. "We have to think about the child's interest," she told Europe 1 radio. "A child needs a father and a mother." Segolene Royal, a mother of four and one of the most popular Socialist leaders, said it was "neither homophobic nor reactionary" to have doubts about gay marriage and argued that strong traditional families are good for children. "If this is about improving civil unions to ensure equal rights, I'm for it," she said of her party's initiative. "But if this just confuses things and unjustifiably provokes family and religious feelings, then I'm not."