France restricts marriage to heterosexual couples but created civil unions, known as "PACS," back in 1999 for both straight and gay couples. In 2000, 76% of the couples that pacsed were heterosexual, in 2006 93% were, and in 2009 (the most recent numbers) 95% were heterosexual couples. The New York Times is reporting that they're actually competing with marriage by the numbers; 173,045 PACS happened in 2009, whereas 250,000 marriages were officialized in the same year (fewer and fewer people have been marrying each year here).
PACS have many of the rights of marriage but exclude a few big ones, mainly the rights associated with adoption. Entering one is fairly easy, as I personally found out in October, and getting out of it only requires one person to go do some brief paperwork.
The article linked above describes why the PACS are attractive to a lot of young people - years-long engagements were already popular as people would rather wait a long while instead of getting married and then divorced, plus there's nothing like health care forcing people to get married before they're ready - and also many older people are preferring the institution. I don't know how many women I've heard who talk like this out here as the country moves from left to right:
Sophie Lazzaro, 48, an event planner in Paris, signed a civil union in 2006 with her longtime companion, Thierry Galissant, who is 50. (She said she was drawn to a civil union largely for the legal protections and stability it offered.)
"I have two daughters, and if something happens to me, I want us to stay together as a family," she said. "But without getting married."
In addition to their practical advantages, she said, civil unions are ideologically suited to her generation, which came of age after the social rebellions of the 1960s. "We were very free," she said. "AIDS didn't exist, we had the pill, we didn't have to fight. We were the first generation to enjoy all of this." She added, "Marriage has a side that's very institutional and very square and religious, which didn't fit for us."
Though French marriages are officially concluded in civil ceremonies held in town halls, not in churches, marriage is still viewed here as a "heavy and invasive" institution with deep ties to Christianity, said Wilfried Rault, a sociologist at the National Institute for Demographic Studies.
"Marriage bears the traces of a religious imprint," he said, often anathema in a country where secularism has long been treated as a sacred principle. "It's really an ideological slant, saying, 'No one is going to tell me what I have to do.' "
The French have a very different understanding of the separation of church and state and how organized religion functions than Americans do. Our narrative behind the separation of church and state is that people's religions were oppressed by various governments so they had to come to America to worship freely, so the separation of church and state is understood as freeing people to worship as they choose. In France, the narrative starts with a Catholic church that actively engaged in oppressive tactics taking money and power from the citizens and supporting the monarchy, so the separation of church and state is seen as freeing the people to act politically as they choose.
The stereotype of a Christian conservative in the US is that they're backwoods bumpkins who can't read or shower or stop having children. In France, the stereotype is that they're people who are comfortable with authority and see the church as a way to both justify and extend their privilege, both ethnic privilege and class privilege. And that they can't stop having children.
The cultural difference couldn't be clearer on this issue. Just after reading the full article in the NY Times quoting a bunch of French people talking about how free they are from the institution of marriage (as well as a woman who says she hopes her PACS will get her family used to the idea of marriage), I come across this letter to the editor in an Illinois newspaper. Illinois is also considering civil unions that would be open to both heterosexual and homosexual couples.
Our state has recently passed a civil union bill, which would allow homosexual partnerships to be recognized as couples in the comfort of the state they live in. You'd figure as a gay-rights activist, I would be ecstatic about this -- I am not.
Civil unions are a start, but they are not good enough. Gov. Quinn is doing the minimum, just to make himself look good, by giving gays some kind of rights. He doesn't want to have to get his hands dirty and risk some people disliking him by allowing gay marriage.
Gay marriage is a legal bond that would be recognized nationwide. It is like comparing a diamond -- marriage -- to a rhinestone -- civil union.
The only concrete issue she has with civil unions is that they aren't portable like same-sex marriage, but that's simply not true. Just ask anyone who's gotten married in Massachusetts and tried to get it recognized in, say, Texas.
I see a lot of value of having at least a two-tiered system of relationship recognition in the US. While we're fond of saying that our relationships are equal to those of straight people, not all relationships really are equal and people in relationships want all sorts of different things out of them. A one-size-fits-all system isn't going to work, which is probably part of why the institution is failing in the US.
We should also do something about people being coerced into marriage, and not just by pushy parents. Health care is something that pushes people to marry against their will:
Some people marry for love, some for companionship, and others for status or money. Now comes another reason to get hitched: health insurance.
In a poll released today, 7% of Americans said they or someone in their household decided to marry in the last year so they could get healthcare benefits via their spouse.
A single-payer health care system would have left a lot of people freer to decide how their love life is run based on romantic feelings and cultural practices instead of their fear that they could get cancer soon and left to die. (One would have thought that the people who go around using the word "freedom" every other sentence would have been more supportive.)
If anything, having alternatives to marriage would increase the sanctity of the institution since the only people who would enter it would be people who really want to do it.
thanks to andreww for emailing the link in