THE French are fairly relaxed when it comes to family matters and private choices. François Hollande, the Socialist president, is not married to Valérie Trierweiler, the “first girlfriend”, nor was he to Ségolène Royal, the previous woman in his life and mother of their four children. His predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, divorced his second wife while in office, and married a third, Carla Bruni, without any fuss. The current mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, is openly gay.
The past few weeks, however, have seen an unusually vigorous debate, after Mr Hollande’s government introduced a new law that will allow gay couples to marry and adopt children. Tens of thousands of Catholic traditionalists took to the streets to demonstrate. The archbishop of Lyon suggested that the law would open the way to polygamy and incest. The French Council of the Muslim Faith denounced the plan, arguing that gay marriage goes against “all Muslim jurisprudence”.
Many French Catholics, who wear their religion lightly, are as uncomfortable with the ultra-traditionalists’ stance as younger French Muslims are with those of their official representatives. Just how far apart those views can be was apparent when a young Muslim scholar, Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed (pictured), decided last week to open a gay Muslim prayer room on the outskirts of Paris. Mr Zahed, who married his partner in South Africa, where gay marriage is already legal, said that gay French Muslims feel uncomfortable in French mosques but have nowhere else to go.
France’s “first gay mosque”—in reality, a small room in a private building—was, needless to say, too much for France’s conservative Muslim leaders. “This place can in no way be called a mosque,” retorted Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grande Mosquée de Paris. He said that all the faithful, whatever their private lives, were welcome in France’s mosques. “We are in a free country,” he added, “but these practices are formally rejected by Islam and in total contradiction with the word of the Koran”. France’s Muslim minority, estimated to be some 5m-6m-strong and Europe’s biggest, is diverse, but its mosques tend to be highly traditional.
The clash between progressives and traditionalists over gay marriage is unlikely to be settled even after the new law is passed. Many French mayors, who preside over marriage ceremonies in secular France, are themselves uncomfortable about the change. Having introduced the new law, Mr Hollande then added to the confusion by declaring in a speech to French mayors that they should “follow [their] conscience” in applying it.
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