Straight Couples in France Are Choosing Civil Unions Meant for Gays

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 14, 2009

MARSEILLE, France, Feb. 13 -- Arnaud, 27, loves Aurélie. Aurélie, 25, loves Arnaud. After several years of sharing an apartment, they have decided they want to spend the rest of their lives together.

So the happy young couple, who did not want their last names used, spent 15 minutes in front of a court clerk Friday morning and got PACSed.

The brief procedure of the Civil Solidarity Pact, or PACS in its French-language abbreviation, put Arnaud and Aurélie among the growing number of French men and women who are choosing a novel legal and social status, halfway between living together and marriage, that is helping change the way France organizes its families.

"It's a first step toward marriage," Arnaud explained after the businesslike ceremony in a corner of Marseille's graceful courthouse complex, the Palais de Justice. Then he rushed back to his office, and the beaming Aurélie returned to her art history classes. The white dress, champagne and honeymoon would be for later, perhaps much later -- perhaps never.

The PACS was introduced a decade ago by France's then-Socialist Party government. Parliament approved the measure only after a fierce debate because, although its wording was deliberately ambiguous, the arrangement was understood mainly as a way for gay couples to legalize their unions even though under French law they are not allowed to marry.

In passing the law without making it specific to gays, however, France distinguished itself from other European countries that have approved civil unions or even marriage for same-sex couples. As a result of that ambiguity, the PACS broadened into an increasingly popular third option for heterosexual couples, who readily cite its appeal: It has the air of social independence associated with the time-honored arrangement that the French call the "free union" but with major financial and other advantages. It is also far easier to get out of than marriage.

The number of PACS celebrated in France, both gay and heterosexual unions, has grown from 6,000 in its first year of operation in 1999 to more than 140,000 in 2008, according to official statistics. For every two marriages in France, a PACS is celebrated, the statistics show, making a total of half a million PACSed couples, and the number is rising steadily.

Yves Padovani, chief clerk at the Marseille court, said couples stream through his office every day at half-hour intervals and make appointments three months in advance to get a slot.

Perhaps more important as an indication of how French people live, the number of heterosexual men and women entering into a PACS agreement has grown from 42 percent of the total initially to 92 percent last year.

That was not what conservative opponents of the measure foresaw in 1999. They viewed it as an encouragement of homosexuality and organized rallies to denounce the Socialists for undermining morality in France. Christine Boutin, housing minister under conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, was among the most vociferous critics and still complains that the PACS harms society by serving as a substitute for marriage.

In recognition of the PACS's growing popularity, however, a half-dozen French cities, skirting the terms of the law, have recently begun holding marriagelike PACS ceremonies in the often ornate city hall rooms formerly reserved for weddings. Most of those cities are run by Socialist mayors. But Christian Estrosi, mayor of Nice and a close Sarkozy ally, also has put his city on the list, indicating rising acceptance of PACS unions even among political conservatives.

Nadine Morano, Sarkozy's minister of state for family affairs, recalled in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper recently that it was Sarkozy who, as finance minister, revised French tax laws to extend marriagelike deductions to PACSed couples. She said she favors legislation to make city hall PACS ceremonies the rule rather than the exception.

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