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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.

Irène Théry, a professor at France's Higher Institute of Social Sciences who specializes in family issues, said the popularity of the PACS among heterosexual couples is largely explained by the growth of free unions, in which unmarried couples live together. Setting up such households has become a declaration of independence from religion and crusty social traditions -- and so common that more than half the babies in France, including those of PACSed couples, are born out of wedlock.

Moreover, the social stigma once associated with having children outside marriage has largely disappeared. Justice Minister Rachida Dati gave birth to a daughter last month, attracting attention not because she was unmarried but because she refused to reveal who the father was. Ségolène Royal, the unsuccessful Socialist Party presidential candidate in 2007, was an unmarried mother of four.

The relaxation of marriage-related social strictures marks a significant departure from long-established French family traditions, particularly among political figures. As late as the 1980s, then-President François Mitterrand maintained a tight silence -- largely respected by the news media -- about the daughter he had fathered with a longtime mistress.

But even though their arrangements are now socially accepted, unmarried couples living together have found they face financial and administrative disadvantages compared with their married friends. Joint income tax returns can lower the annual bill considerably. Inheritance laws make transferring property to someone who is not a legal spouse more expensive and more difficult. Dealing with the French administration can be an ordeal without legal documents attesting to a place of residence and a social status.

"So we had a lot of couples in free unions, and there were a lot of rights they didn't have, especially the right to file their taxes together," Théry said.

Many schoolteachers living together without marriage also decide to get PACSed so they can benefit from a government policy seeking to assign legally joined couples to schools in the same city, she added. Taking the idea a step further, one teacher staged a fake PACS with a female friend because he wanted a transfer to the attractive city where she was assigned, according to a friend.

But PACS unions are also seen as more appealing than marriage because they can be dissolved without costly divorce procedures. If one or both of the partners declares in writing to the court that he or she wants out, the PACS is ended, with neither partner having claim to the other's property or to alimony.

Tanent Gharbi, 27, a cinema student, and Jocelyn Daunis, 26, a researcher at the Marseille waterworks, said they were PACSed Thursday in Marseille mostly because of the tax advantages. In addition, Gharbi said, she was eager to end administrative hassles that arose because she lived with Daunis without a status that allowed her to call the apartment her legal residence.

Daunis said he and Gharbi are together for the duration and plan to get married at some point, perhaps within a year, but could not afford the cost of a wedding yet. "This is a first step toward our marriage," he said, echoing Arnaud.

In that vein, government statistics show, one-sixth of PACSed couples that end their unions do so because they want to get married.

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