international analysis and commentary

Same-sex marriage and the social climate in Europe


Last April, following a positive vote in the National Assembly, France officially recognized same-sex marriage, making it the ninth European country to move in this direction. The other European countries that have already recognized same-sex marriage are the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland and Denmark. These countries, geographically located in Western Europe, are also among the first [1], worldwide, to approve same-sex marriage.

The new French legislation is the result of a political struggle, with strong opposition from a wide constituency composed of religious and right-wing political groups. They showed an unexpected organizational capacity, proving to be numerically important and absolutely determined to obstruct in any possible way the approval of this law. Some of the biggest right-wing street protests of the last 30 years, combined with threats from skinhead and extremist groups (religious and political) to members of the French Assembly who indicated that they would vote in favor of the law, have surprised many for their magnitude.

The new French legislation fully recognizes same-sex marriage but leaves out important issues such as  parenting rights for same-sex couples in civil partnerships, medically-assisted procreation and in vitro fertilization. These topics have been addressed and legally regulated in other countries such as Spain. Therefore, the new French law could be considered as an incomplete victory for same-sex couple advocates, in particular if it is compared with Spain, which recognized and approved a law giving equal rights and dignity to same-sex couples with a wider number of rights in 2005.

Just as François Hollande experienced much hostility in France, Zapatero’s socialist government encountered large protests when it proposed to legalize same-sex marriage. This was in spite of the fact that more than two-thirds of Spaniards were in favor of his proposal – more or less the same proportion that was registered in France by opinion polls. At the time, large demonstrations, similar to those seen in France in the last few weeks, were organized by the still powerful Catholic Church.

The legalization of same-sex marriage was used by Hollande, and previously by Zapatero, as a  symbol of their active leadership on controversial social issues. At the same time, a more pragmatic political observer might suggest that this battle has been cynically used to shift public attention away from the economic crisis and rising unemployment, especially in France.

Recalcitrant opposition to same-sex marriage is not the only similarity between these two cases. Both in France and Spain, the Catholic Church is losing influence but it is still one of the few organized political constituencies remaining. Other intermediate organizations (i.e. political parties and trade unions) have seen their size and influence sharply curtailed in recent years. Even eight years after the approval of legislation on same-sex marriage, the issue still remains on the political agenda in Spain due to efforts by the new center-right government headed by Mariano Rajoy to challenge the law and bring it before the Constitutional Court. In November, with the Court’s rejection of the request for abrogation, Rajoy’s government finally gave up the fight.

Same-sex unions, which are not marriages but offer some kind of legal recognition, are present in all almost all EU countries (although there are big differences from country to country) with the exception of two: Italy and Hungary. In the case of Italy, the presence of the Catholic Church is widespread across the main political parties and has heavily affected the public debate. Just like in France and Spain, the Catholic Church and organizations affiliated to it are among the few organized political constituencies in the political arena: even in a largely secular society, their capacity to make their numbers count creates an over-representation effect.

Hungary is a totally different case. Viktor Orban’s conservative government has been far from recognizing any form of same-sex marriage. In fact, its verbal “persecution” of homosexuals has provoked open condemnation from the international community and the European Union.

Despite these obstacles, looking at Europe as a whole, the evolution of the civil rights of gay people has never progressed as quickly as in the last decade. The decreased importance of social and political networks in the last 20 years has increased the possibilities for a single agenda group, i.e. advocates of gay marriage, to develop a narrative and find widespread support in society. Civil rights and the recognition of gay rights, as well as gender equality, will inevitably be part of the evolution of European societies in the future. 

[1] At the moment 14 countries have approved laws that recognize same-sex marriages. In addition, many non-state level entities (i.e. American and Brazilian sub-federal states) have recognized it as well.