In France, a secular Republic that tends to pride itself on tolerating deviations from the social norm, but harbours a strong right-wing Catholic element, the family debate has suddenly taken on an explosive aspect. In time-honoured fashion, traditionalists and radicals have taken to the streets in the opening skirmishes of what looks set to be one of the country's more vivid ideological battles. It has been sparked by the Socialist government's proposals to introduce a new form of marriage contract.
On Friday, the National Assembly will begin debating a bill to introduce a Civil Solidarity Pact (known by its acronym "Pacs") - a contract which will offer legal and fiscal recognition to couples living together who not wish to marry or are not normally eligible to do so. The row surrounding it could surpass even that over the right to abortion, fought 20 years ago.
As a curtain-raiser, demonstrators for and against the Pacs gathered in assorted towns and cities last weekend. There was a lot of shouting and banner-waving, and some violent incidents in Orleans. Discussion of the proposal has been raging in the press and on television for weeks and has ranged far beyond the very limited scope of the Pacs to address the whole issue of the family's future in a modern society. All opponents agree that the new contract would betray family values, and somehow undermine what remains of family life.
The Pacs idea grew out of the campaign for homosexual marriage, but has been amended and diluted along its six years of gestation until it is a contract open to virtually any two people sharing a home - brother and sister, even "a priest and his housekeeper".
It offers tax benefits - a couple who sign the Pacs will have the right to be taxed together after two years, and protection from France's draconian inheritance laws, which favour the blood family over all other associations and affections. Many gay cohabitants, for example, had found themselves out on the street following the death of the partner who owned or rented the shared home. A Pacs couple would be able to affirm solidarity with each other, inherit from each other, and agree to take responsibility for each other's debts.
However, the Pacs makes no mention at all of children and offers no right of adoption - something that the gay rights activists have been campaigning for very vigorously. (Single people over the age of 28 in France have the right to adopt in any case.)
Government spokespeople, from Prime Minister Lionel Jospin downwards, have bent over backwards to say that it is not a marriage, simply a new kind of legal social coupling, somewhere between a marriage and just living together - a state that already carries certain benefits.
Speaking in a heated television debate on Sunday, Elisabeth Guigou, the steely Minister of Justice, said that it was important not to confuse marriage (an institution), living together (a fact); and the Pacs, which would be a contract.
However, traditionalists and church leaders see the Pacs as a first step towards the total disestablishment of the family. Predictably, strong condemnation has come from the Roman Catholic Church: the new Archbishop of Lyon and Primate of the Gauls, Monsignor Louis-Marie Bille, has described the Bill, curiously, as a double-bottomed suitcase, concealing its real contents. Protestant leaders have also expressed reserve and the assorted churchmen have found unaccustomed allies among secularists.
A third of the country's mayors, 14,000 of them, signed a petition against it (although later it seems that many didn't know what they were signing). The Bill now specifies that the Pacs will be signed at the Prefecture to avoid confusion with weddings at the mairies.
Anti-abortion campaigners, including their young blonde pasionaria, Noelia Garcia, have thrown themselves into an anti-Pacs crusade. Even the somewhat austere and conservative Jospin is said to have been lukewarm about the project at first, but has been brought round by his erudite wife, the feminist philosopher, Sylviane Agacinski. The heavy-hitting women of Jospin's cabinet, led by Martine Aubry, Minister for Solidarity and Employment, and Elisabeth Guigou, are strongly in favour. The right-wing opposition, however, is fiercely opposed to it and has already tabled 44 amendments.
Nevertheless, the Pacs has caught the popular imagination, although not quite as the government wished. It is already seen, for better for worse, as a form of marriage, a "marriage lite", and has given the language a new verb: pacser as in "Voulez-vous pacser avec moi." Potential signatories are already being called Pacses. Opinion polls record enthusiasm - it seems to answer a need.
This shows that, in France as elsewhere, the people are way ahead of the legislators, and are reinventing their own ideas of the family without government or priestly assistance. Modern couples are driven by economics, education, technology, new ideas of love and freedom, and the increasing independence of women.
More than five million people in France live together outside marriage, and 40 per cent of births are to unmarried parents. Common law marriage is so normal in France as to be barely noticed. In Britain and other western European countries, the pattern is similar.
As the escalating row in France demonstrates, however, the Pacs raises many more questions than it answers, especially with regard to children. It can be ended unilaterally by one partner by no more than a simple declaration.
Perhaps such an arrangement would suit the Will Carlings of this world. It is certainly a recognition that close relationships may not be forever - as if they ever were. For example, thanks to increased longevity, the average marriage now lasts longer than in Victorian times, a period always held up as the heyday of the best family values. And the same percentage of marriages were broken by death (often in childbirth) in the 19th century as are now by divorce. Vastly more children were raised by step-parents or in bleak orphanages, without the benefit of even one parent.
There is a special hypocrisy in present day Britain, where the popular press uses marital breakdown as a form of public entertainment, pretending to vilify "love-rats" like Carling, but in the end glamorising and endorsing their behaviour.
But the Churches' insistence on procreation as the main object of marriage is simply out of tune with the age. (A French bride was recently refused marriage in a Catholic Church because she told the priest that she did not wish to have children.) Modern marriage is first of all about partnership between loving adults.
Opponents are angry and anxious about it, because they know that Elisabeth Guigou, for all her attempts to play down the Pacs as something quite different from marriage, and nothing to do with the family or with children, has a very ambitious plan for major family reform. She has already appointed a working committee and recently summed up the situation facing modern, libertarian secular societies in which women are permitted full equality if they wish it: "We now have many new forms of the family, and it is through them that we must try to maintain essential functions, especially the relation between children and their natural parents," she said.
The Guigou reforms will include new rules about co-parenting, as well as a new, easier form of divorce. They will continue the "social revolution" begun by the Pacs; the debate launched this week is thus set to run well into the new century, perhaps providing its greatest social challenge - and not just in France.Reuse content