Friday, 28 November 2014

Marriage for everyone, but not everywhere by the same means

Living in a different country than that where I come from, I have the advantage to retain a little more "international" point of view than the average citizen. A recent society issue is particularly well suited for a small exercise in comparative political sociology: the issue of "marriage for all", or in other words the extension of the right to marry to homosexual couples.

Belgium was the second country in the world to grant the right to marry to same-sex, in 2003, on the basis of a wide consensus from both the public and the political class ; another law granting the right for homosexual couples to adopt followed in 2006. At the time, everything went very smoothly, in a climate that emphasized national pride rather than opposition. Since then the law has never been questioned.

In France, the bill on "marriage for all" passed in 2013, after months and months of bitter debate, riots, demonstrations, and mass protests, organized by the religious and right-wing political organizations. My little Belgian brain has really struggled to understand the reasons for all this verbal and physical violence, this rage that seemed to be based more on the principle "only heterosexuals should have the right to marry" than on any another justification more intelligible to me, like the well-being of the adopted children. A year later, I am even more surprised how peace returned as brutally as the fight had begun.

And in Finland... it's even more surprising: in the last Nordic country not having yet granted marriage to same-sex couples, a serious discussion on the subject was launched in 2010 and a bill to this effect was presented to Parliament in 2012. The bill was striken down, narrowly, by the Legal Affairs Committee. Never mind, because since 2012 Finnish citizens have the opportunity to propose a legislative amendment as a citizens' initiative, which if it collects 50,000 signatures, is automatically considered by the Parliament. The initiative on same-sex marriage launched in 2013 has achieved in a single day to get 90,000 signatures, reaching 166,000 signatures later, while surveys noted a clear majority of citizens in favor of gay marriage. The bill was then referred to the Legal Affairs Committee, which again voted against it June, but this time it was not enough to strike it down. The bill had to be referred to the plenary session of parliament this fall, and parliamentarans had to examine this week if they would follow the negative opinion of the Committee on Legal Affairs and definitively reject the bill...

Discussions on the subject were quite surprising to me: a majority of citizens supported gay marriage, embracing the key words "Tahdon 2013" (the traditional "I do" in Finnish marriage ceremonies), while their representatives at the Parliament seemed to be much more divided on the subject; the Lutheran Church repeatedly pronounced itself in favor of gay marriage (yes they did! the Church!),  facing a Christian Democratic Party fiercely against it; and in the end such a mishmash within each party that parliamentarians were, for once, complete free to vote according to their conscience. I even had the surprise to attend discussions on the subject between Finns who normally never talk about politics! Yet the debate remained, as far as I can judge, remarkably courteous and reasonable, centered largely on the right to adoption. It even included a touch of humor when an openly gay parliamentarian asked the president of the far-right party, openly opposed to gay marriage, for the permission to get a kiss if the law passed...

Result: a lot of suspense and, this afternoon, a relatively close vote of 105 against 92 (and one absent) in favor of supporting the bill. I'm not entirely sure that the law is already final, but it is in any case a great step forward. It is also a great step forward for democracy, as since 2012 it has been the first citizens' initiative to succeed. And, from my point of view, it is certainly further proof that democracy works very differently in different countries....

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