The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

French protest against gay marriage plan: An unexpected view from the Eiffel Tower

France isn’t Scandinavia. If you add up the state-by-state numbers, it isn’t even America. A crowd of more than 300,000 took the fight to the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris to protest the president’s plan to legalize gay marriage and allow same-sex couples to adopt and conceive children. You have to do a lot to get attention in a country used to demonstrations. This succeeded.

The slogans, signs and chants favoring “Daddy, Mommy” and insisting “Mariageophile pas homophobe” proved Sunday that France is indeed unpredictable. When it comes to social issues, apparently, laissez-faire has its limits.

It’s not the image one would associate with the French reputation for tolerance in personal matters. French President Francois Hollande, who had four children with his partner of many years, fellow Socialist politician Segolene Royal, and is now involved with a journalist, is not the first French leader with a complicated personal life. That certainly wouldn’t fly in America.

In France, a system of not-quite-marriage civil unions, created in 1999 primarily as a step forward for gay rights, has actually been more popular for heterosexual couples. So the strong pushback on the same-sex marriage plan seems to have taken Hollande by surprise. His Socialist party has backed away from the issue of assisted reproduction, allowing lesbian couples access to artificial insemination, promising to examine it further.

Hollande might have thought legalizing same-sex marriage – as other European countries such as Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark have done – would glide easily to passage. In America, nine states and Washington, D.C., have legalized same-sex marriage; Maine, Maryland and Washington approved it in November.

In France, the issue has exposed divisions, such as rural vs. urban, in a society that supports legalizing same-sex marriage but has reservations when children are involved. Many demonstrators traveled by bus from other areas of the country for Sunday’s rally.

In traditionally Catholic France, only a minority of citizens attend church regularly. But Catholic Church leaders have found a voice on this issue, as well as allies among some Muslims, evangelicals, far-right politicians and some gays opposed to the measure. It has united groups that have often been at odds.

As the issue has increasingly been framed as concern for the family, polls show that overall support for gay marriage has slipped. “We have nothing against different ways of living, but we think that a child must grow up with a mother and a father,” Philippe Javaloyes, a literature teacher, said in an Associated Press story.

Though the Socialist Party controls Parliament, the plan’s opponents want a referendum. In that, they share much with opponents of gay marriage in the U.S., who prefer a popular vote to legislative action to decide the issue. The result would add another layer to the image of a country most only think they know.