Friday, 15 March 2013

Frigide Barjot - a very French protest

On Tuesday of this week, I was sitting in the press room of the European Parliament in Strasbourg - waiting for a press conference on the 2014 EU elections - when suddenly a woman clad in hot pink burst into the room. Her leathery brown skin and wild hair stood in stark contrast to the suited conservative members of parliament who were ushering her in. By her side was a young man with bleach-blond hair, also clad in pink.

This, the journalists learned, was Frigide Barjot - the leader of France’s anti-gay-marriage movement. The Conservative MEPs had invited her to the European Parliament to speak about her desire to extend her anti-gay-marriage movement to all of Europe. While notorious in France, Ms Barjot is unknown outside the country, and the journalists were perplexed as to why she was there. But I knew of her already, if only from the many Facebook posts I see from my French friends decrying her antics.

Barjot cuts a strange figure. She is the leader of the French anti-gay-marriage protest movement you may have seen videos of (The Colbert Report has covered it with bemusement), with people dressed in crazy costumes and brandishing pink signs that read ‘Un Papa et Une Maman’. She is a sort of comedian, having chosen the pseudonym Frigide Barjot (a take on Brigitte Bardot) herself. But her act is not satire; she is dead serious. She says gay marriage will lead to the collapse of French society and the corruption of French children.

Barjot’s is not a religious movement. She herself is an atheist (although she recently described herself in an interview as a “born-again Catholic”). She used to be a fixture in the Paris gay scene, partying the night away in clubs like Le Queen and Les Bains. She might best be described as a ‘socialite’ or a ‘personality’, akin to someone like Paris Hilton, who has no specific job or talent but is famous for being famous.

Some openly gay members of the European Parliament came to Barjot’s press conference to denounce her, expressing incredulity that their colleagues would invite a young man to speak at the Parliament who once declared that French President Francois Hollande’s effort to enact gay marriage is akin to what Hitler did to the Jews. I’m told that in fact the centre-right EPP group did not know that this handful of ultra-conservative MEPs were planning to invite her. In fact the press conference was not announced until one hour before it happened. But it was an undeniable endorsement. At the end of an outlandish and bizarre performance by Barjot, a promotional video was played urging people to come to the anti-gay-marriage rally in Paris next month.

Dressing the part

For an American, the anti-gay-marriage movement in France is completely perplexing. They appear to have co-opted the presentations of the gay rights movement to use for themselves, dressing in pink feather boas and outlandish costumes at their rallies. There is no talk of God and religion, or of people going to hell. Instead the message attempts to be positive – emphasising only the 'goodness' of the family rather than the ‘badness’ of gay people. Needless to say, the demonstrations against gay marriage in the US are quite different.

Barjot says she loves gay people, but thinks gay marriage is bad for them and bad for society. That young man with the bleach blonde hair she brought in with her? He is openly gay, and told the press conference that he is adamantly opposed to gay marriage because it would lead to the breakdown of the family.

It’s almost as if they have watched the anti-gay-marriage movement in the US and tried to learn lessons from how negative and nasty that movement comes across. In recent weeks a score of  ‘mainstream’ Republicans have changed their stance on gay marriage, keen to separate themselves from the elements of the party that are seen by many Americans as mean-spirited in their tone and rhetoric toward the subject of gay marriage.

Barjot and her followers want to be the ‘positive’ anti-gay movement. And yet at the end of the day, the objective and the beliefs are exactly the same: gay marriage is harmful to society and a danger to children, and must be stopped. So why does the French manifestation of this look so different?

Meanwhile, in the UK...

Across the channel, it just so happens that a British law that would allow gay marriage is working its way through the parliament at the same time as in France. In fact, it's looking like the two pieces of legislation could be adopted in the same month. But though they are happening concurrently, the debate in the UK could not look more different than that in France.

The opposition to the legislation in the UK has been muted. There has been tepid protest from the Church of England in the form of letters and op-eds, and during the first legislative debate on the issue last month there were a handful of MPs who said they objected on moral grounds. But none of the language used even comes close to the dramatic and inflammatory rhetoric seen in the French legislative chamber or on the streets of Paris. There have been no street protests in the UK organised against the measure. And now that the first parliamentary vote has happened in the UK, the media has largely moved on. It’s over and done with. Not so in France – the heated debate rages on, even now that it has become clear that the measure will pass.

It is an indication of the wide support for gay marriage in the UK that the change in law was actually proposed by a Conservative prime minister - David Cameron. The lack of right-wing resistance could partly be explained by the fact that the British civil unions which have already been in place for eight years are already marriages in all but name, bestowing the exact same rights. In France, the ‘PAC’ civil unions that have been in place are much weaker – more like a co-habitation recognition than an actual civil union. So the change will be greater in France than in the UK.

French conformity

The difference between the two countries is not necessarily a question of more numerous public opposition in France - polls show roughly 70% of people in both countries support gay marriage. The real difference is in the manifestation of the opposition. Granted, France has a strong history of public protest that does not exist in the UK. But I don't think that alone accounts for this peculiar difference in the way the laws have been greeted in each country. I would attribute it more to the very different cultural attitudes toward conformity. In many ways, I think the ‘Barjot’ phenomenon gives lie to the image that France likes to project to the world – a secular society of liberty, fraternity and equality.

France is officially a secular state, while the UK has an official state religion. But, in my humble opinion, the reality is that traditionalist values and conservative attitudes are far more prevalent in France than they are in Britain.

France is a very ‘collectivist’ society. Strong emphasis is placed on family and society, and less emphasis is placed on the individual. Just look at the education system. Children take a test around the age of 12 to determine the path for the rest of their lives. The education system is a rigid maze of tests and certifications which ensures that switching careers later in life is difficult. From my vantage point, it seems like creativity and individualism are discouraged in France. Deviations from the 'life plan' assigned to you are not generally appreciated.

The UK, by contrast, is a more ‘individualist’ society on an Anglo-Saxon model. Much emphasis is placed on personal freedom and personal success, and far less emphasis is placed on service to the state or to family and community ties. Just look at how fiercely Anglo-Saxon societies resist identity cards, which they view as the ultimate restriction of personal liberty in the face of statist control.

This fierce individualism can lead to problems of social breakdown and a lack of solidarity in Anglo-Saxon societies like the UK and US. But it also leads to greater freedom for people to live their own lives the way they see fit, and that extends to choosing to live life as an openly gay person. Having lived both in the UK and in France, my experience is that gay people are far more likely to be out of the closet in Britain. In France, it often seemed that family pressure or social expectations were keeping people in the closet, which I found counter-intuitive for a society that likes to think of itself as so much more enlightened and secular than their Anglo cousins.

If Barjot’s movement is not explicitly religious, then what exactly is their problem with gay marriage? In an American context, the movement is difficult to understand. Why would an Atheist be so passionately opposed to gay marriage? I think the answer is that the movement is more centered around social expectations. There is a strong tendency in French society to demand conformity. A person choosing to live their life in a way that is against expectations is innately hostile to that French impulse. These protestors in pink are not enraged because the gays are living in sin, they are enraged because the gays didn’t do what they told them to do. These protestors are but a small segment of French society. But that they feel so passionately about this on non-religious grounds is honestly hard for an American like myself to understand.

In the end, the resistance to gay marriage is a losing battle in either country. Like in the UK and the US, open homosexuality is coming to be accepted as a mainstream part of life in France. There will come a time in France when being openly gay, getting married to ones partner and raising a child together will not seem outside of expected social norms. But this time has not come yet. So you get the ladies in pink, furiously resisting the change even though they don’t seem to know exactly why.

But these feelings will pass. And in hindsight all these protest movements, whether it be the pink boas in France or the bible-beating in the US, will seem quite absurd.


bill gates said...

At least one point in this post is completely wrong. Almost nobody takes an important exam at 12 in France. In Britain there is far more school selection at around that age. The vast majority of French kids go to the neighborhood school without taking any entrance exam at all.

Anthony said...

Hi, your article is interesting and is true on many points but I'd like to point out some mistakes.
First, Frigide Barjot is absolutely NOT an atheist. She is a fundamentalist catholic, supporting "pro-life" organizations. It's been a few years since she "rediscovered Faith".

Second, it's the ridiculous gay boy that you mentioned, Xavier Bongibault who compared Fran├žois Hollande to Hitler, not Frigide Barjot. That would have been crazy! She's a pro regarding PR and she would never say such a thing.

Brussels, Belgium said...

Hi Anthony, thanks for the notes! I did actually mean the young man in the sentence about the Nazi comparison, in that he was also technically invited by the MEPs - but I'll make that more clear in the sentence.

On Barjot's religiosity, while it's true that she now identifies as a "born-again Catholic", what's interesting is that there are very few to no religious references in her movement. Perhaps this is because she doesn't want to alienate non-believers. It's very different from the American and UK context, where the anti-gay-marriage movement is explicitly religious. The fact that there is a secular movement against gay marriage in France is absolutely fascinating to me, because I can't imagine such a thing developing in the UK or the US.

BTW apparently Frigide is leading a demonstration of French anti-gay activists at Trafalgar Square this Sunday (24 March), it will be interesting to see how the Brits react!