THE BLOG
02/14/2013 02:25 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Political Genius of 'Marriage for All'

It's been interesting to follow and get involved in the French debate over gay marriage. Just this week our National Assembly adopted the law. The second chamber has yet to study the draft, but if the National Assembly says yes, it means it's a done deal. And I love democracy more and more.

I loved it this time because it managed to mobilize millions of French and spur a national discussion beyond professional activism. Even at dinner tables the "marriage for all" topic was so emotionally charged that it became a bit like another Dreyfus affair (the 19th-century scandal that tore apart France), polarizing younger generations from older ones with a semblance of irreversibility.

Three major marches endorsing and opposing the law, and hours of broadcasted debate pitching word against word, experience against experience and often theories against empirics, prefaced the final vote. And the law passed not because it was deemed right but because it came to represent the way that a majority of us (64 percent, according to a poll) want to see our social contract evolve. Despite a range of sometimes-vindictive interpretations of human nature and speculations about the irresolvable qualities of gender differences, democracy proved that it wasn't about searching for a questionable truth. It's about collective choice.

I recall the words of Pablo Seban, a man raised by a lesbian couple, who thanked opponents for worrying about children with gay parents. "Thank you," he said. "We're doing well. But what if we didn't?" Stressing both the empirical reality and the legal gap that arises in extreme cases (if his biological mother had beat him, for example, his other mother wouldn't have been legally entitled to intervene), his words were influential in framing the debate in the direction of legal necessity.

Words can do that. They can elevate an issue to a greater necessity, or, taking the other road, they can bring it back to the floor of real-life experience. U.S. President Lincoln could do both. To condemn President Polk's military intervention in the Mexican-American war, he qualified it as a desire for "military glory -- that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood." Bang. The war became sticky with real-life blood and personal arrogance. Lincoln's words did not prevent the war, but they helped make it controversial in the public eye. A few years later, Lincoln's rhetorical mastery would allow for a radically different framing of the war, this time fastening it to the very possibility of democracy.

So what can words do in a somewhat disenfranchised representative democracy 2.0 to successfully frame the debate over gay marriage? Can a tweet have a Lincolnian resonance and be an opinion mindblower? Can words still exacerbate ideological differences and bring everyone to a sheer alternative, a clear-cut either/or that sets each person in front of his or her civic responsibility?

In France the political genius lay in linking gay marriage with the French tradition of (and obsession with) equality. In the end it wasn't about difference, empathy, recognition, historical progress, oppression or anything along those lines. It had little to do with being gay, even. It was about legal equality. As though we'd suddenly discovered a small typo in our civil law, the debate was about setting the record straight, not really about producing a change in the text, hence the sublime formula "marriage for all," which, though somewhat reductive and a bit awkward, framed the debate positively and legalistically and did not ascribe the issue to a given community. If not this then that; if not an LGBT issue then a national concern.

However, I am prone to think that this legal artifice, though politically smart, has some drawbacks. In our age of empathy, the acknowledgement of differences and instruction about other people's lives and perhaps the need for protection and affirmative action could have been discussed. Yet all of this was safely kept outside the debate by the nature of the legal argument. But isn't this the crude law of political pragmatism?

The "marriage for all" act is carved in the cultural varnish of France. It tosses gay rights into the DNA of the country, the basic principles of the Republic where equality comes first -- the French equivalent of the American Constitution and the principles of the founding fathers.

It was fascinating to follow parliamentary debates live. I was reminded of the vitality of democracy when everyone chips in. Our minister of justice, Christine Taubira, a black woman from French Guiana, was so impeccable that both the left and the right wings conceded multiple standing ovations, including for her birthday, which happened at midnight in the midst of the almost-uninterrupted 109 hours of debate. If her words and her rhetorical ability served the debate so well, I am convinced that her republican fervor -- the way she tuned the debate to the French background -- account for a lot of this success. And it could be a lesson for the upcoming American debate.

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