Saturday morning, anywhere in France: the lines outside the baker’s, the greengrocer’s, the butcher’s or cheesemonger’s shops make it look like pre-glasnost Russia. Anyone new to France might wonder why people are so willing to wait twenty minutes to buy their baguette or slice of bleu. But — important as the food might be — what the French have really come to get is the latest gossip.
“Ha!” snorts the lady in the killer stilettos (oh yes, we do dress up just to buy a loaf of bread), “what would the president know about marriage, straight or gay or any other kind?”
Immediately the line divides into pro- and anti-Hollande factions and (this particular village being two hours from Paris) the hostile faction outnumbers those who think President François Hollande is just the ticket. Hollande recently announced that, while his government will be legalizing gay marriage in January 2013, the mayors of individual villages will not be forced to perform such civil ceremonies if the task offends their personal sensibilities. Lots of mayors are already declining to perform the unions, and all of a sudden liberal, laid-back France is profoundly interested in the whole subject of marriage. In fact, having lived in sin, so to speak, for decades, France seems to have abruptly decided that now it wants to get married…or get its president married, for starters.
“Four children the president has,” huffs a local schoolteacher as she takes possession of her armful of baguettes. “And he won’t legitimize any of them! It’d serve him right if a newlywed gay couple applied to adopt them and took them to live under a respectable roof!”
The crowd cracks up laughing. Hollande indeed fathered four children with his former partner (and former presidential candidate) Segolène Royal, without marrying her. And now the president is starting to find the subject of marriage surprisingly sticky. And living as he does with his current partner, Valérie Trierweiler, without marrying her either, is hauling him even further into the buzzing beehive.
“There must,” asserts a local farmer while waiting for his chocolate cake to be boxed, “be something wrong with him. Two women, four kids, no wedding? Either he’s allergic to marriage, or neither of those women considers him good husband material — and in either case, we have to wonder why.”
As a rule, France claims to not care what people do or don’t do in their personal lives. Yet the Republic was visibly relieved when President Sarkozy married Carla Bruni immediately after being elected in 2007. Sarkozy has four children with three mothers between them, but at least he sequentially married all three mothers, and now there appears to be just the tiniest twinge of nostalgia for the former president.
“Say what you might about Sarkozy. He respected the system and the institution! He refused to bring his mistress to meet the Queen of England; he did the right thing and married her before they went to London! But now this new Lothario, Hollande, trails that hussy of his all over the place without caring who he might offend! A fat lot he knows about marriage, of any kind, or about protocol or good manners either!”
So says the farmer, and his sentiments are met with a rumble of agreement. Suddenly, a suspicion dawns: While France might live and let live on a daily secular basis, does it secretly want its leaders to uphold social values, traditions and institutions? Even to embody them?
Increasingly, it appears that it does. While it might be all very well for young Pierre the postman to shack up with young Julie the nurse, “shacking up” now seems to be deemed undignified for presidents, seen as a slightly juvenile or even cowardly copping out of responsibility. “It’s not normal” mutters a village policeman as he takes possession of his pain de campagne, “for a man to never marry. What’s wrong with him? Or with her for that matter? Which of them doesn’t want to marry the other, and why? What is this commitment phobia? What does it tell us?”
Ah, there it goes — the dreaded word “normal,” which has come to haunt Hollande since his election on a “normality” ticket, and which has been backfiring ever since. First he refused to live in the Elysée Palace (thereby creating a security nightmare for his “normal” neighbors) and now he refuses to do the “normal” thing and marry Valérie. Although nobody much likes Valérie, she at least represents the moral high ground. France is starting to find it all very unsettling.
“After all,” says the policeman as he heads off to the bar for his Saturday-morning ballon, “marriage is good enough for the rest of us! Personally, I don’t trust a man who won’t marry the mother of his children — living together is all very well until you start a family, but once you’re a father it’s time to grow up!”
And so saying, the cop decamps, leaving virtually the entire line nodding its head in agreement. Several of the people in it are slightly worried about their own adult children, who are becoming parents without formal commitment, and this is of far more concern to them than the gay rights issue. Suddenly, Hollande is starting to look like an icon of debauchery as well as a figurehead of social dissolution.
Two days later, in the dentist’s waiting room, everyone’s still talking about him.
“Gay marriage” says a woman with twin toddlers in tow “is a smokescreen. Gay people can already legalize their status (via a contract called the PACS) like everyone else, so what we need now is a president prepared to legalize his own status. If marriage were not an important institution, it wouldn’t exist. And he obviously considers it important, since he wants to legalize it for gays.”
Another patient chimes in. “Isn’t it ironic,” he says with asperity, “that the people who don’t have children want to marry each other, and the people who do, don’t?”
There’s a ripple of nervous laughter at this, but…ooh là là. It’s all getting very tangled and there is the growing impression that François Hollande is painting himself into a corner on this issue. As a product of the swinging sixties, his bohemian status is predictable, but alas France isn’t. France ostensibly condones “living in sin” — just so long as its president doesn’t do it, its daughter doesn’t do it, its son does the decent thing, and no innocent children are hurt in the making of this movie, which will be coming to a cinema near you in January. When the marriage equality law goes into effect, watch out for the fireworks, because in a splendid display of irony, both François and Valérie have just announced their intention to be witnesses at the weddings of two sets of gay friends. They’ll be officiating separately, but who knows — perhaps all that happy commitment will finally rub off?