Week after week after week French ultra conservatives have been taking to the streets of Paris, and of other cities too – sometimes, like last Sunday February 2, by the hundreds of thousands – to protest against President François Hollande's social policy which, in many other European countries, has been peacefully resolved.
Where else in Europe – except, perhaps in Spain – have extremists massively demonstrated, sometimes violently, against gay weddings or the right to choose, considered as « evil » ? Is a new « Tea Party » « à la française » taking form, based on the same so-called « traditional » - i.e. Roman Catholic fundamentalist – values as those of their American counterpart ?
Anti same-sex marriage activists waving flags during a rally in Paris. Demotix/Valentina Camozza. All rights reserved.
And is that trend spreading in Europe, from the radicalization of the Spanish ruling right on the right to choose – soon to be almost banned - to the ultra-right in Poland or Hungary ?
Since they started demonstrating last year against the bill on what we call the « wedding for all », i.e. for gays and lesbians, that extremist fringe has rediscovered what has long been a leftist tradition, mass demonstrations with banners and slogans. Since these, almost inevitably, start or end under my windows, near Montparnasse, we find ourselves, together with the walls of our apartment building, shaken by the incredible noise blasted by huge boom boxes. Conservative groups have now started to enjoy a tradition that they used to regard with loathing when organised by the « Reds ». From church mass to mass demonstration? Marching crowds have been protesting, not always peacefully, against all sorts of measures passed by the Socialist government under the generic name of « La manif pour tous » (the demo for all) or against so-called « family-phobia ». So much so, in fact that the French Government has just postpned presenting its family bill to Parliament by a year, in an attempt to diffuse the crisis which has also served to give the demonstrators a distinct whiff of victory.
The last massive rightwing demonstrations were thirty years ago against educational reforms by the then president Mitterrand, or in support of De Gaulle in the June after May ‘68. But on each of these occasions, they were a one-off, not like the series of demos we are now witnessing, with well dressed bourgeois families from BCBG (chic) neighbouring surrounded by fair children, chanting such slogans as, “A family is one father and one mother”, overlooking the fate of millions of one parent families.
It started last year with demos against a bill on the « wedding for all » presented to Parliament by Justice Minister Christiane Taubira. Herself a black MP from French Guiana, she was caricatured by demonstrators as a banana eating monkey, including by young kids pushed towards TV cameras by their parents. The bill has been passed, with a few votes from the Centre and from the conservative UMP, but the war is still on and spreading to other real or supposed measures like Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) or surrogacy. Advocated by gay groups, by an active minority in the Socialist Party (PS) and by a fringe of leftists and Greens, they have never been on the government's agenda, although, during his election campaign, Hollande had not been that clear on ART. Yet, for these ultras, the very fact that they are not mentioned in past or incoming bills only means that they are part of a “hidden agenda”.
The same goes for a “gender theory” never mentioned by the government, advocated only by a few leftists, but which is considered by the leaders of these demos as the overarching ideology behind the “hidden agenda”. Another target is the “ABCD of equality between girls and boys” now being tested in some schools to promote gender equality, which is being presented like an attempt to suppress any sexual difference through cross-dressing, and promote the use of sex toys if not the teaching of masturbation in kindergartens - accusations often made, but never proven, and “baseless” according to popular Home Minister Manuel Valls.
And now, under the banner of “Demo for all”, it is Hollande's policies and his own personality which are challenged with the slogan of “Hollande resign!”
Through the Internet, families have been asked to keep their children from school one day a month, spreading fears, often among Muslim immigrant families from Northern Africa and sub-Saharan countries living in suburban council houses who often share very conservative views on sexual equality and freedom for girls or on homosexuality.
A late January “Day of Anger” also attracted groups of young chanting anti-Semitic and anti-gay slogans, often fans of the “humourist” Dieudonné who is popularising revisionist ideas about the Holocaust and the Nazi extermination camps. Dieudonné has just been banned from entering the UK by the Home Secretary Theresa May. Every conceivable attempt to mobilise all the extremes has been used to beef up these demos, with some success.
This has reached the point where the original organisers of the anti- “wedding for all” crusade, like the conservative figure Frigide Barjot (a nom de plume), taking fright at the radicalization of a movement they had helped to father (or mother), have now bailed out. Tempted to support it earlier last year as a tool against the government, the UMP now keeps its distance. Only a handful of UMP MP’s have joined the demos, while the party leadership is at the same time anxious about conceding the ground to out-of-control mobs and being tainted by this extremism at a time when the extreme right Front National is gaining ground in the opinion polls and may well take the lead in next May's European elections.
Frigide Barjot. Demotix/Infosart. All rights reserved.
Why has this openly reactionary crusade taken root so fast in one of the most secular European countries with only a few per cent of churchgoers and where, according to a BVA opinion poll published on January 24 by daily Le Parisien, 78% of the French, including 73% of Roman Catholics, agree with Hollande's policies on social issues?
54% of them do not feel provoked by the government, contradicting anti-abortion, anti gay wedding Roman Catholic fundamentalists like MP Christine Boutin, who is accusing Hollande of “Catholic bashing”.
Clearly opposed to gay weddings, the Roman Catholic Church has avoided taking a position. If some have openly sided with the demonstrators, offering them public or logistical support, few have taken to the streets.
But, by hesitating to disassociate themselves from this crusade by a small minority on issues on which they are opposed by the vast majority of the French, including Roman Catholics, they run the risk of being seen to side with extremist groups. Groups who are trying, under the guise of religious belief, to impose their views on a government they accuse of not listening to their demands, i.e. of not caving in to the law of the street. Just like the Tea Party.
The present social and economic crisis is largely responsible for this. Like the rapidly deteriorating image of politics and politicians, from left and right. When people feel gloomy about their future and do not believe any more what they are being told, it is easy to make them believe things that have NOT been said, as on ART and surrogacy.
When ministers and PS leaders keep bickering among themselves, it is difficult to show a clear path ahead. Especially as Hollande himself, never married, and entangled in personal affairs which have dented his agenda, has become an easy target for the “pro-family” groups.
Moreover, when the opposition UMP is decimated by internal feuding, lacking a credible political platform and divided on whether former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is straining on the leash, should stand as their candidate in 2017, they just can't provide a credible alternative, and have provided a fertile soil for an uncontrolled anger which could easily get out of hand. This is also why the outcome of next month's municipal elections remain so unclear, when they should have been a triumph for an opposition facing the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic.