The Opposing Shore

The room is covered in dead leaves. Two benches are placed just so, conjuring up a bucolic garden scene, in the first days of fall, in the countryside, waiting for the season to roll by and take our memories with it. And yet we’re a mere stone’s throw from the Place de Clichy in Paris, in the eighteenth arrondissement, and it’s spring. On a small stage, a young performer from Toulouse, the twenty-eight-year-old AJ Dirtystein, is naked and covered in white rice powder. Images of two girls kissing are projected onto her body and the back wall. A voice-over recites extracts from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

It’s the story of Catherine, a poor little barefooted girl, who is given red sandals and wears them to church. Sacrilege. AJ Dirtystein dons a white wolf mask and oh-so-high-heels, red ones, of course, she begins to dance, spellbound, and the good folk chop off her feet. End of act one. During the interlude, a man, tall and thin, rigged head-to-toe in a black latex bodysuit, sings Gounod’s “Ave Maria.”

It’s Sunday afternoon, in Mistress Cindy’s Parisian dungeon—the generic term for a dominatrix’s quarters, in this case a sprawling basement. Three score have come to see AJ Dirtystein. Some are young, some belong to the fetish or BDSM scene, and some are just curious, having acquired the password somehow, somewhere. The artist launches into a second act. She covers her body in milk, rips pages from a book and staples them to her legs, her stomach, her breasts, her ass, her pelvis. She screams, hamming up a porno scene, “fuck me, fuck me, masturbates a while, bleeding, the pages fall to the ground. She gathers them up and hands them out to the audience, it turns out to be the Old Testament, we get a passage from the fall of the Tower of Babel. Applause.

A few kilometers away, it’s another world. Heading towards the Seine, along rue d’Amsterdam, down rue Tronchet, past Madeleine and Concorde, over the bridge and across the river, on the other riverbank, in front of the National Assembly, activists are praying, the atmosphere is all candles and rosaries. They’re kneeling, they want to stay through the night, but they know the riot police will kick them out by midnight in a fracas of insults and malcontent. They are the veilleurs or watchers, the latest term contrived by the anti–gay marriage movement. Every night they hold a vigil, getting down on their knees to pray for the legislation not to pass, for parliamentarians, the government, homosexuals and anyone else to see reason. For them reason means restricting marriage to the union of man and woman, so as not to undermine the state of nature. It’s not quite clear what the state of nature is; it conjures visions of Rousseau, running naked through the forest shouting “Émile! Émile!” but surely that’s not what they mean. Originally, the Fraternité spirituelle des veilleurs (Order of Watchers) was a French Protestant fraternity, founded in 1923. Its principles state that they “do not seek to form a new movement. They are moved by the dramatic decay of contemporary Christianity. They therefore want to “watch and pray” and thus endure in a state of spiritual alertness and genuine willingness to serve, trying all the while to maintain themselves in the love of the Lord.” Commandeered by Catholics in 2013 (they make up the majority of the kneeling), emptied of its social compact, the willingness and the openness, it seems only the fear of Christianity’s decay remains.

A line from Julien Gracq’s The Opposing Shore comes to mind. Blind to one another, two empires face off across a vast expanse, vigilant, each one convinced that the other is populated by decadent barbarians. And so: “The reassuring thing about equilibrium is that nothing moves. The reality is, it only takes one breath to move everything.”

When tasked with covering a “Demo For All” (manif pour tous), the name given to the protests against the proposed bill that the LGBT community has touted as the “Marriage for All” (mariage pour tous) bill, you can’t help feeling that at any moment, everything could just give way. On January 13, braving temperatures that could wake the dead of the Montparnasse cemetery around which the procession is carefully making its way, thirty-one-year-old doctor Grégoire and twenty-six-year-old medical student Servane have come from Nancy with little Léopoldine, five months old, in a pram. “It’s against nature, two men cannot have a child together,” says Grégoire. He bemoans living in a world which, he says, “has no ideology, no truth, where desire runs wild.” “How can such a society, in which each does as they please, build a nation, fight for the common good?” asks Servane. She explains that gay marriage is a slippery slope to polygamy and bestiality. “Look at Germany, there are protests in support of bestiality,” she says, concerned. Until 1791, one same law outlawed homosexuality and bestiality. In the very same sentence. This association is not lost on some.

At the front of the procession, two young girls march dressed up as the emblematic Marianne, allegorizing enacting the Delacroix painting Liberty Leading the People. Regrettably, they’re not bare-breasted. These last few months, France has seen some strange things. Normally, it’s all fairly straightforward. At a national level, the Right is in power and implements a largely free-market reform agenda, while various actors from the Left, from trade unions to students or teachers, take to the streets and defend the social benefits that are being whittled away as economic crises continue to unfold. This time, everything is different. The socialists and the Greens won first the presidential then the legislative elections, and now it’s ostensibly the Right who are hitting the pavement. Well-groomed Catholics throw stones at the police, call for disobedience and insurrection, even civil war, while those in favor of the law stand behind the official tallies on protester numbers. The whole thing’s back to front.

In 1999 the PACS—a contractual union officiated at the local town hall and far simpler than marriage, open to homosexuals but carrying no adoption rights—was established by the Socialist government. At the time, they had the balance of power in the legislature and Jacques Chirac, a conservative, was president. The debate was heated, protracted, but the marches in the street paled in comparison to today’s. Three years later, the Right was back in power and made no attempts to repeal the law. While many countries adopted gay marriage in the meantime, in France, birthplace of the Enlightenment, human rights, and the Paris Commune—plenty of clichés, take your pick—such rights should have been self-evident. And yet, it simply highlighted an important social rift—the polls showed 60% in favor of gay marriage and an even split on adoption—as well as the original and not-quite-healed fractures of State, Church, and the nation.

France is an old country, in an old continent, Europe. And its relationship with the Catholic Church has never been a simple one. Kings went to war for the church, died, reclaimed Jerusalem, then lost it again. Others imprisoned popes or forced them to rule from Avignon in the South of France. On Saint Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572, a wave of killings saw between ten and thirty thousand Protestants massacred at the behest of Charles IX, to appease intransigent Catholics. The pope gave thanks and had the Te Deum sung in celebration. During the French Revolution, the church was challenged and vilified, associated with the nobles and accused of being wrapped up in its privileges. But during the Italian unification in the 1850s, Emperor Napoleon III hesitated between supporting the nascent republic and the pope, to save the pontifical states. In 1905, a law formally separated Church and State, and since then any and all religious incursions into public space have been looked on with suspicion.

“Choice of Priests in 1791” is one among many maps in The French Mystery, the work of demographers and historians Hervé Le Bras and Emmanuel Todd. At this time, priests were asked to swear an oath to the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” and hence support the revolutionary reform agenda and redraw local clergy hierarchies, creating a de facto split from papal authority. While in some areas like the middle of France, the Southeast, and around Paris, up to 90% signed on, the figure dropped to below 1% in other areas, such as Britanny or Vendée to the west. The country is divided, uprisings ensue, and with them a bloody suppression. Another map in the same book, “Religious Practice in the Beginning of the 1960s,” represents the rates of adults regularly attending weekly mass. In some regions the numbers flatline, and others show almost full participation. The geographical split is the same as in 1791. While religious practice has diminished across the board today, Hervé le Bras and Emmanuel Todd argue that a kind of “zombie Catholicism” still exists, an ambient influence on values and modes of thinking that continues to traverse society, families, and friendships.

Bishop Louis Charrier de la Roche believed in the Revolution. Worried about this polarization, in 1791 he wrote: “incendiary prejudices abound, from which even the most well-intentioned are unable to hide; bitterness and animosity are fostered and directed against the most peaceful of those not belonging to one’s side.” Though things have yet to reach such drastic heights, his words nonetheless resonate today, given the galloping pace at which threats and rumor spreads, given that crying “wolf” seems never to have been so popular.

France is not a country united, and no doubt never will be. It’s always one side against the other. Changing mores are an ongoing battleground. People like to take to the streets, rip up the pavement convinced they’ll find the beach underfoot, and when they realize there’s nothing but acrid, graying soil underneath the cobblestones, they start to throw them, so as to forget awhile, to take a moment to dream and to live. Over the past fifty years, the church has lost every fight: abortion, the death penalty, the PACs, though in 1984 they managed to save their private schools, which a previous Socialist government hoped to fold into the public system.

No doubt this time, for a while there, the church thought it could win. From a communications point of view, the organizers of the anti–gay marriage movement (who, quite astutely, were never direct representatives of the church) set a joyous stage. Children up front, a “demo for all,” everything pink and rosy, almost too cheery, all this to have us believe that really, they had nothing against homosexuality. And then of course there were the “Hommen,” bare-chested men in colorful jeans and overalls parodying the feminist movement Femen while chanting borderline homophobic slogans, in spite of their blatantly homoerotic getup. “Hideously beautiful,” as Rimbaud would say.

Femen, meanwhile, also took to the streets, in counterprotest and without hesitation, taking on the extreme right and fundamentalists from the Civitas movement, earning broken teeth and black eyes along the way. On May 12, from atop a building, they called for the “sextermination” of ultranationalist groups GUD and Œuvre française who, thirty feet below, were paying homage to Joan of Arc. The militants yelled up from the street “on the stake! on the stake!,” no doubt missing the paradox in their calls.

France is a country divided, but its opposing groups sometimes share the same references. The last few months’ demonstrations brought this to the fore across the many marches both for and against the legislation. It was a race to see who could appropriate Delacroix, Victor Hugo, or Jean Jaurès, each side casting themselves as both revolutionary guardians of “true” French values. While anti–gay marriage activists were the ones who called for civil war, it was attorney general and ardent proponent of the bill Christiane Taubira who relayed that sometimes you have to “play the fool” in society. From the floor of parliament on the February 6, citing poet, founding father of the Négritude movement, and fellow Guinean Léon-Gontran Damas, she unleashed a now infamous rejoinder to the hundreds of assembled parliamentarians and the nation, watching live on TV: “We the villains/We the littl’uns/We the slurs/We the curs/We the beggars/We the Negroes/What are we waiting for/What are we waiting for/To play the fool/To piss and drool/All we like/On this life/Stupid and crass/They’ve made for us? If we do not give ourselves these equal rights, if we do not recognize our freedoms, then we are telling them: what are you waiting for to play the fool with this stupid and crass life?”

The marriage law was passed, then validated by the Constitutional Council. The first marriage was held in Montpellier in Southern France on May 29. Five hundred guests attended the wedding of Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau, with the local police on heightened alert. The strife should all be over by now, France should have moved on to something else and forgotten the stupor of last summer and the clashes of the winter. And yet, no doubt, this isn’t the end of it. The bill’s detractors will tell anyone who’ll listen, who isn’t sick of hearing from them, that they’ll fight until the end. Supporters of the LGBT movement will have to renew their efforts to safeguard their rights, to wipe out homophobia and violent assaults whose numbers have jumped dramatically in the last few months. And then there will be other struggles, other advances to obtain or defend. One thing is certain, however. There will always be people ready to take to the streets, to piss on the wall, to play the fool, and maybe that’s the reassuring thing.

Translation from Léon-Gontran Damas adapted from forthcoming English edition of Black Label prepared by K. Gyssels, C. Pagnoulle and F. Ojo-Ade.

© Quentin Girard. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Damien Bright. All rights reserved.