|A recent photo of French president François Hollande|
François Hollande's election campaign included the promise, supported by a large majority of French citizens, that he would legalise same-sex marriage, and indeed he kept his word. Or at least he seemed to have done so until yesterday. The law had been drafted and was waiting for what would have been a formality of an approval vote.
However, last weekend witnessed large demonstrations in many French cities and towns (see this photoblog) by anti-gay marriage associations, one of which turned violent, and many people were surprised by the high turnout. So, it would seem, was Hollande, and he finally emerged from his silence on the issue yesterday evening during a speech at a meeting of French mayors in Paris to make this confusing and astonishing, statement, which was clearly designed to appease the many mayors around the country who have said that they would not apply a gay-marriage law;
"(If the law is voted) I recognise the freedom of conscience of mayors who would refuse to celebrate marriages between people of the same sex.... The possibility of delegations (i.e; of mayoral delegation of powers and duties) exists, and they can be enlarged.... There are moments in the life of a nation, and it is the role of the president, where we have to make choices and reflect the evolutions in society. It appears problematic and then the time comes that (the choices) are accepted by all, even those who are against a law proposal. The law of the land applies to all but it mast also respect freedom of conscience"
In other words, he quite simply offered mayors the possibility of refusing to marry homosexual couples if they felt like it, despite the fact that the law would guarantee that homosexuals would have the right to marry. Or in even simpler terms than that, he is buying mayors off by allowing them to break his own law, thus going back on his earlier declarations which insisted that no mayor would be allowed to refuse to marry gay couples.
Dumbfounded pro-gay marriage associations and politicians all over the country could hardly believe their ears. An Inter-LGBT spokesman said that he "couldn't undestand how anyone can justify a law which is not applied in the same way all over French territory." "We are stupefied", commented Elisabeth Ronzier from SOS Homophobie, adding that the president had "backed down."
Vincent Fleury, a regional leader for centrist party the Modem declared that freedom of conscience for mayors means that they may resign if they do not wish to apply the laws of the Republic, but that they may not remain in office and exempt themselves from them. Another centrist, Chantal Jouanno, reminded the president that he had opened up "an extremely dangerous breach" in the rule of law and "that freedom of conscience exists for voting in parliament is only right but it cannot be used to refuse to obey the law."
A baffled Noël Mamère of the EELV party denounced "a retreat, a submission and fudging.... By giving in to the most ultra (i.e. right-wing) mayors he has shown an inexplicable weakness." Mamère is also a mayor and he explained that Hollande's speech means that mayors would be able to delegate their duty whilst simultaneously imposing strict limits on what the person who is mandated to apply the law may do. He said that it would now be possible to refuse to delegate and even to delegate that only traditional marriages could be celebrated on their territory.
Others emphasised the danger that mayors would be able to extend the freedom of conscience clause to refuse to marry blacks, Arabs or anyone else they didn't like and, by extension, even refuse other rights.
In a more light-hearted vein, France's Twitterati is busy posting irreverent tweets asking if it's now okay to rob a bank or kill their noisy neighbour as long as they use freedom of conscience as a defence.
Meanwhile, anti-gay marriage supporters are celebrating what they clearly see as a major victory over the government saying that their pressure was beginning to pay off and that it is now time for Hollande to abandon the idea of legalising homosexual marriage.
With this astounding announcement François Hollande and his government have made it obvious to all - as if it were not already obvious - that they are there to be U-turned by anone who wishes to make them do so.
Hollande has now watered down, U-turned on or put off almost every major election promise he made, including on issues such as Europe, the right of foreign nationals to vote, the 'cumul des mandats' which permits multi-office holding by politicians, the national debt, legalised euthanasia, tax breaks for the rich and many more.
But his decision on freedom of conscience is the most cowardly retreat of all.
Faced with a weekend of demonstrations by a motley and ugly band of fascists, racists, church organisations (this is supposed to be France, a secular country) and Catholic integrists, François Hollande has proved to be a weak-willed and spineless president whose term in office so far has almost entirely consisted of appeasing his opponents.
As things stand Hollande is France's modern-day peactime equivalent of Neville Chamberlain, and if he doesn't soon find the guts to govern the country correctly that epithet shall surely prove to be his political epitaph..