Alex Blaze

Both the French and Americans need alternatives to marriage

Filed By Alex Blaze | December 16, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media, Politics
Tags: France, health care reform, LGBT, marriage, New Jersey, pacs, statistics, straight

France restricts marriage to heterosexual couples but created civil unions, known as "PACS," back in 1999 for both straight and gay couples. _47866820_civil_partnership_fr_466.gifIn 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

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I would argue that PACS are not an alternative to marriage. They are exactly the same except in name. There are no real alternatives.

"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." Sanctity means holy or sacred. Should the government be involved in increasing the sanctity of marriage?

They really aren't the same thing. They're easier to get into, easier to get out of, don't have many of the same rights, and, yes, there's also the name/cultural difference that's important to a lot of people.

Alex, how do PACS work for community property and future support and such? I am thinking of stay-at-home spouses who have the spouse with the job and income leave after several years or spouses who support someone through school, only to have them dump them when they start to make money. I think we are all familiar with such stories, which are much worse for same-sex couples where they can't get married--is a lot easier to walk away and screw your partner over.

You say it doesnt help with adoptions, either, which is another big issue with same sex-couples, esp when one is the bioparent and the other can't get parental rights.

Although I am old and romantic, and love the idea of 'getting married' rather than 'getting civil unioned', my main concerns of not having marriage equality are practical, along the lines of the issues I mention above. To me, these are the biggest weakness of civil unions, rather the 'separate-by-equal' issues a lot of ppl have. Until civil unions of some sort (perhaps different kinds/levels?) offer the same rights and obligations as marriage, it still seems to me we need marriage.

Here's what an official government website says about dissolving a PACS:

Liquidation of rights and obligations

In general, it's done respectably through the ex-partners.

In case of disagreement, the partners can take their case to the bankruptcy court to decide on the property consequences of the rupture, and possibly on compensation for damages resulting from it.

My guess is that children don't create a new complication since the legal system is already set up to handle unwed couples having children.

As for the need for marriage, I think that's part of the point of letting everyone into civil unions. Unlike in the UK, where it's civil unions for the gays and marriage for straight people, here the idea for conservatives is that marriage is just for straight people, and for more open minded people it's that everyone should have two tiers to choose from. It makes the hole in the system more apparent.

But I don't see much about gays getting riled up for marriage here. Really, it's like gay adoption is their gay marriage, with the gays mostly concerned with that, other gays complaining that it's taking too much attention from real issues, and the religious right always concerned with adoption.

Instead of a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, the perennial favorite of homophobes here is presenting a constitutional amendment that gives the "right" to every child to one mother and one father. And the way I understand it, the biggest issue with marriage back in 1999 when it seemed like it was going to happen was adoption and children, not marriage as an institution.

I should also add that when one gets a PACS a couple has to make a contract themselves that discusses if they're going the community property route or whatever they want to do.

Also, it wasn't until 2006 that government forms included a box to check for "PACS" under "civil status." Before pacsed people were just considered single, and that's where most of them (myself included) are now: they see themselves as single people in a conjugal relationship with a few tax, inheritance, and other benefits (the permit to stay and work in France was the biggie for us). It's not same-sex marriage or marriage lite, it's an alternative to marriage.

Thanks, Alex, this helps a lot! :)

It seems like PACS is an alternative to marriage only for opposite-sex couples, who actually have a choice. Is it true that in France single LGB people can adopt kids if they're closeted, but not if they're out or PACSed? Can opposite-sex PACSed couples adopt? Gay singles and couples in Illinois can.

We certainly need an alternative to marriage. For me it is even more important. I am transgender and an atheist; Marriage is a church function. I am currently married, but did not need nor want a piece of paper to prove my love and certainly not the blessing of a church to prove my love for my spouse, my best friend. But for financial reasons we got married. We have been together for 27 years and married for 22. We are partners and our bond is with our hearts. The marriage is just there for financial, asset and legal reasons. If we had an alternative a truly equal alternative, we would drop the religious marriage and go with a secular solution in a heart beat. And of course being transgendered, it would really be nice if that legal and financial protection could be offered to all citizens; not just the special religious class that already has marriage available to them as well. I think marriage should not provide any government, legal or financial vehicles, simply put, if your religious and your wish to follow the doctrine of your religious beliefs, you get married, then all the dogmas of that belief system can be supported by that marriage. If you want the financial and legal protection you get the civil union or pac or whatever you wish to call it along with the marriage; Since the marriage is your way of bonding with a like believing religious person. That way the rest of us who show our love outside the dogmas of religion can do so and still sign up for the protections of shared assets, inheritance, visitation, etc… O' and if someone wants to start a family, maybe we could base adoption on how good and moral a human being the parents are; And not on their sex being opposite or them belonging to and practicing certain dogmas. I in no way want to ruin the values of certain believing individuals and for that reason, we should actually consider separating church and state in this country (USA) and stop fighting for secular people to receive the dogmatic blessings of a church. An for those individuals that improperly practice a religion and do not qualify to marry, because they are not following the beliefs of their church, they can still attend the church, even though they do not honor the beliefs of that church and still be protected with a secular bond and legal protection like a civil union or PAC would allow. Of course many dogmatic beliefs prevent the idea of equality to flourish, so even not stealing the marriage function of the church would cause a great deal of difficulty getting such equal protection to all this nations citizens and for that reason, I understand why the thought is to leave the church and state bonded together and continue to have the government regulate our rights based on church blessing. But this still just seems completely insane to me.

Marriage isn't a religious institution. It is what you want it to be. You can have a completely secular wedding and marriage without any religious involvement at all.

Even historically, the church didn't get into the marriage business until the 12th or 13th century. Before that, marriage was mostly an agreement between families. Then later, the government got involved and regulated it more and more.

In many European countries that distinction is clearer. You must have at least a small ceremony in front of a civil servant. The church wedding is entirely optional. In some countries, couples have two distinct weddings depending on their priorities. Some only have the secular one. In some, both can be at the same time.

Whatever they're called both straights and ourselves need a partnering arrangement that's easy in and easy out. And one that applies to everyone to avoid stigmatizing, bigotry and the creation of a second class layer of citizens like Obama and the Clintons favor.

The allure of pheromones wears out after a while and very large numbers of partnerships of all kinds fail. So they have to include ironclad arrangements to protect women and children who often get the short end of the stick when they do fail.

America also needs the Alternatives to Marriage Project, the only national 501c3 dedicated to separating rights and responsibilities from marital status and recognizing the value of all caring relationships. AtMP does policy research and advocacy and provides information and resources for unmarried people. Please join us at and/or on Facebook!