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February 12, 2013

Frenchman Divided Over France's Gay Marriage Debate

by Lisa Bryant

France soon will follow more than half a dozen European countries in recognizing gay marriage. The lower house of parliament approved the legislation on Tuesday. Passage by the Senate is not in doubt, since the governing Socialists, who are pro-gay marriage, control parliament. The issue has stirred up surprisingly fierce discord, though, in this nominally Catholic - but staunchly secular - nation. One French citizen from the Brittany village of Ereac has taken a surprising stance.

Elie Geffray straddles both sides of France's gay marriage divide. As a retired Roman Catholic priest who still conducts masses and other religious events, he obeys a church that opposes the unions.

Geffray also is the mayor of Ereac, however, a farming village deep in Brittany's heartland. And when gay weddings and adoptions become legal here, as most expect, he is willing to perform civil ceremonies for couples who want them, although he will not marry them in church.

Geffray said he will abide by the laws of the two institutions he belongs to - the French Republic and the Catholic Church. But he said he also believes the time has come to recognize homosexuals, and that means recognizing their rights.

Divisive issue

Gay marriage has bitterly divided France. Battles for and against the unions are playing out on the streets and in politics. Polls indicate the majority of French are in support.

But in recent weeks, tens of  thousands of opponents - like 19-year-old Elenore Demacebu - have participated in protests in Paris.

"I'm here because I think it's very important to defend marriage between a man and a woman. This is absolutely necessary for children, because they need a father and a mother," she said.

Conversations at the Ereac bar mostly concern the weather and farming, not gay marriage. Few people here go to church. But Geffray's views, and his dual roles as mayor and priest, have drawn media attention. The man most people here just call "Elie" has become something of a local celebrity.

Separation of church, state

Factory worker Philippe Landais, 32,  is Geffray's neighbor. He has traditional views about marriage.

Still, Landais said he respects Geffray. He thinks people here will eventually accept the idea of same-sex weddings.

But bar owner Cecile Gastine said Ereac is a conservative community.

"We are in the country and they don't know. They have never met.. gay people. In big towns, it's normal to see gay people. Not in [the] country," said Gastine.

Geffray said that most Ereac residents do not say much to him about gay marriage, probably because they are against it. But he said he has received many letters of support from across France - along with negative ones. He writes back to critics who seem open to discussion, including the local bishop, to explain his views.

Geffray said that if gay marriage is sanctioned, it suggests the French state is more open to homosexuals than the church. That troubles him. With the Catholic church searching for a new pope to replace Benedict XVI, that may change. For now, gay couples who want a civil ceremony can head to Ereac.