France: Civil society gets it wrong

People are demonstrating in large numbers in France these days against government policies. There’s another demonstration today, where hundreds of thousands are expected to march, bringing much of central Paris to a halt. Smaller demonstrations have culminated with vigils outside the French parliament every evening. There’s a massive mobilisation from all parts of the country, supported by Civil Society and by the Churches, and coordinated by new media and social networks.  Oh, and at the last demonstration the Police fired tear gas into the crowd.

So who are these heroes, and what’s their cause? Well it’s not unemployment, or poverty, or the banks. It’s gay marriage (what the French call “marriage for all”). They’re against it. This is not supposed to happen, of course. By definition, elite middle-class mobilisation is supposed to be for progressive causes, not reactionary ones. In Egypt, say, we assume that they represent the views of the people as a whole against the government, and, if the people later vote the wrong government into power, well, that’s the fault of the people for not understanding their duty. Here, it’s not fair that the organisers of what they call the Demo for All have all the right qualifications, on the surface, for representing public opinion. It’s not supposed to be like that.

Opinion polls seem to show that most French people are sort of vaguely in favour of “marriage for all,” without seeing it as an important issue. For the beleaguered government of François Hollande legalising it represented almost the only one of his announced policies which he had the courage to implement. It seemed an easy win, to restore his position slightly with the coalition that had brought him to power. But in fact it has simply unified the Right, fractured his own support, and undermined what remains of his presidential image. Nice one François.

Sympathetic commentators have dismissed the demonstrators as “extremists” and “motivated by hate”. It’s certainly true that there are some really unpleasant people involved, who have been legitimised by the controversy, and are getting some undeserved publicity. Worryingly, there have also been reports of physical attacks on bars frequented by gays. But as far as I can see the people on these demonstrations are normal, middle class people, often couples with children, or students. There have been some well-known homosexuals who have told the media that they think that “marriage for all” is a step too far. And even the gay community as a whole doesn’t think it’s an issue of great importance.

It requires an impressive level of political incompetence to produce a situation like this, but that’s not the worst of it. It also shows that all of the favourite tropes of the last few years, about democracy, civil society, new media, Twitter, Facebook, flashmobs, you name it, can as well produce outcomes we don’t like, as those we do. Think about that, when this current hysteria has died down.

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