France and gay marriage

Earlier this week, the long and fractious debate in France about “mariage pour tous” finally came to an end when the new law was ratified. Gay civil marriage in that country will soon be permitted. It’s been a tough ride. French society is pretty much split down the middle on the issue, and although support has grown over time, at least a third of French citizens are vehemently opposed.

France has for some time had the equivalent of British civil partnerships (called the civil solidarity pact, about as French a name for an institution as it’s possible to imagine), with the major difference that these arrangements are also open to straight couples. But marriage is a special institution in France, bringing with it a raft of rights and privileges, especially over money and property, that are not available to civil unions.

But above all, French marriage is about children. When I got married in France, notwithstanding that neither I nor my partner had the slightest intention of bringing any children into the world, and quite possibly not the means, either, most of the ceremony was about bringing children up, and the responsibilities of parenthood. The marriage certificate is contained in a dinky little book entitled “le livre de la famille” with special pages in which we could enter the details of our sprogs. To be honest, it reminded me of nothing more than the service history you get in the book that comes with a new car. Have a child, get your log-book stamped.

So in France, marriage is to do with children, and this is what has caused so much heartache and controversy. The right of gay couples to live together in legal union is not really at issue. What is at issue is that marriage brings with it the legal right to adopt children, and to seek “artificial” means to conceive them. I put that word in inverted commas because its meaning has become pejorative, but I mean it here in its original and literal sense: that artifice has to be used because the usual biological mechanism is not available.

As those who’ve read my blog before will know, I’m a supporter of gay marriage. In a secular society, it is no argument to say that God forbids or disapproves of gay relationships, even if He does, which I very much doubt. France has long celebrated and jealously guarded its secular constitution. All marriages in France are secular, and the church has no part to play in the legal process of marrying. For sure couples can, and often do, rush smartly from the mairie to the church, car horns blaring, to have their secular marriage blessed by the curé.

So in France there isn’t the problem that’s created in England by the fact of the established church, with its priests as authorized as secular registrars to perform the legals at a marriage. I’ve argued here before that if we could have a fully secularised version of marriage, then the arguments of the church in particular, and Christians in general, that gay marriage is an oxymoron, would fall away. In effect, I’ve been arguing that the position in Britain should be the same as that which already pertains in France. I believed that this clear separation between the secular and the sacred would make gay marriage an uncontroversial issue. Well, I’ve rarely been so wrong. The opponents of gay marriage in France have been involved in violent protest (albeit violence that has been disowned by moderate opponents) and if anything emotions run higher there than here.

No, it’s not gay relationships that are really at issue: it’s all about children. And I fear this is a much more thorny question. It’s easy to dismiss the opponents of the legal recognition of gay relationships as simply homophobic. Many of them are sincerely of the view that God’s disapproval is the basic issue, and that active gay relationships are sinful and that’s all there is to it. Regardless of their sincerity, this fundamentally religious objection to gay marriage is illegitimate in a society where only a small minority are actively religious. Even as a person of faith myself, I can see that this argument is irrefutable.

But the issue of children is more difficult. If someone argues that adoption by same sex couples, or the artificial conception of children for the benefit of same sex couples, is wrong because it’s against some God-given rule, then that is easily dismissed in the same way as the argument against gay marriage in principle. But that’s not what a lot of French society is arguing. The argument is about whether it’s in the best interests of children to be brought up in a same-sex family. Even more fundamentally, it’s about whether it’s right to procure children specifically in order to satisfy the wishes of same sex couples to have offspring. You do not have to be homophobic to ask that question. I have the same problem with surrogacy in general, as much for heterosexual couples as for homosexual ones. My concern is about the use of children to satisfy the desires of adults, when those children have no possibility of choice in the matter.

It’s a great pity that all these things have got so mixed up and intertwined. It’s unhelpful to try and unpick these difficult and complex matters by the use of name-calling. Because I have serious concerns about the issues of children and family life, that does not make me a homophobe. I am crystal clear that people of the same sex should be able to get married. I am not remotely as clear that this should automatically include the right to adoption or surrogacy. Maybe it should. But I’ll not be dragooned into agreeing that that’s the case merely on pain of being insulted.

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There’s no right to be offended, but perhaps there’s no right to offend either

Many in the Islamic world are up in arms again. The American video is now followed by cartoons in a French satirical magazine, the BBC reports. France is taking precautions at its embassies and schools in Muslim countries. We’ve been here before, and will doubtless be visiting the same territory in future. In the meantime more innocent people will lose their lives.

The principles at stake are crystal clear. In contrast, the practical way forward is about as opaque as it’s possible to imagine. So let’s start with the easy bit, and establish the principles. I have a right to practise my religion without interference or constraint, other than where such practice abuses the rights of others. So no, I can’t freely practise my religion if that religion leads me to murder (as in the recent cases of “demonic possession”) for example, but if I want to waft incense around the place it’s no business of yours. I have the right to ask that my beliefs are accorded respect, but I have no right to demand that they are. I have no right whatsoever to demand of those who do not share my religious convictions, anything at all. I most certainly do not have the right to kill and maim those who profane my beliefs no matter how hurtful I might find that profanity. Whether the Islamic world likes it or not, it seems to me that these principles are inviolate.

So what should happen in practice? This is much more difficult. It’s tempting to elevate all matters of principle to the same level. The principle of free speech may seem to be so basic that every attempt to constrain it should be fought tooth and nail. But if, in pursuing my right to free expression, I have reason to believe that innocent people may well be brutally killed, should that give me pause? If people die because of the cartoons in that French magazine, notwithstanding that ultimate responsibility must lie with those who kill, and not with those who “provoked” the killing, is it sufficient to say that those deaths are merely an unfortunate collateral damage sustained in the fight for the assertion of freedom of expression?

I am in no doubt that a magazine in a free country should have the untrammelled right to publish any cartoon it bloody well likes, to include images of the Prophet Mohammed notwithstanding the views of those who think such a thing a blasphemy, and the devil take the hindmost. But I’m not at all sure that asserting that right is worth a single drop of other people’s blood. If I want to make a stand, I should make it at my expense. It’s all a bit too easy to make a stand when other people are going to pay the price, and pay it with their lives.

European democracy: between a rock and a hard place

As François Hollande is sworn in as the new French president, his suit will hardly have had time to dry after the Parisian rain before he is off to meet Angela Merkel in Berlin. The latter has promised to welcome the former “with open arms”, but whether those arms are open in order to embrace or to crush remains to be seen. In true European style, there will be warm words, a carefully crafted communiqué, and a circle that looks for all the world like a square. The Euro will derive some short-term comfort no doubt – at least until the machinations in Greece send it plunging again – but the ability of the two leaders and their eurocrat assistants to maintain the illusion that believing the impossible before breakfast is a mere bagatelle becomes ever more strained. The end game is approaching. No communiqué, however sophisticated its theological squirming, can maintain the fiction that Greece is both in and out of the Euro. So something, or perhaps someone, will have to give. Assuming the latest attempts to cobble together a Greek government out of the remnants of their recent elections fail, it seems virtually inevitable that Athens will be wanting both to tear up the bail-out deal, and yet still be part of the Euro. If Greece leaves the Euro, Angela Merkel will have established German supremacy in Europe: if it stays in, François Hollande will have maintained, for now at least, the concept of Europe as a balance of powers.

The irony of all this is that Merkel and Hollande are ploughing their contradictory furrows because of an identical fear: that European democracy is in peril, and that at best there will be dictatorships in some European countries, and at worst there will be war. Germans look back to the inter-war hyper inflation that they believe ushered in Nazism. A collapsing currency is their greatest fear. They insist that fiscal discipline is the only bulwark against that risk crystallising. The French believe that the greater risk is impoverishment, and that only economic growth can prevent it.

Whilst Merkel and Hollande thus bandy their fears about what poses the greater risk to democracy in the future, they appear to neglect the clear and present danger that threatens democracy at this very moment. Is the Greek ballot box to be supreme, or is the troika? Is it the will of European peoples that rules, or is it the market?

This is the fundamental question that we must confront. If we allow the globalised market to continue to make democracy irrelevant, the future will be bleak indeed. The question is not about finding some sort of compromise between fiscal discipline and growth. It is about finding a way to make the market subject to democratic control. The impossible thing we’re being asked to believe isn’t that Greece can be simultaneously in the Euro and out of it: it’s that we can simultaneously have democracy and an unbridled, globalised market. We can’t. At the moment, we seem to be prepared to sell democracy down the river in the interests of economic liberalism. That’s a truly Faustian bargain.

Racism then and now: a musical insight

In the middle of the 18th century, when the Atlantic slave trade was at its height, there was a then famous black composer working in France. Even those of you who are lovers of classical music have probably heard of him. His name was Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was a violinist, although that was only one of his talents. Others included athlete, military commander, huntsman and swordsman. He wrote several violin concertos for his own playing, and the slow movement of one of them can be heard here:

I think one might be forgiven for thinking it was a lost work by Mozart or Haydn. It seems extraordinary that a composer of such talent is today almost totally forgotten.

There’s a strange paradox here. When Saint-Georges was alive, it was a time that we like to think was one in which black people were very much worse off than they are now. It would be idle to pretend that wasn’t the case, and yet here we have a black man operating at the highest levels of the French aristocracy in a way that would perhaps cause comment even in 21st century England. Our aristocracy is not known for its multi-cultural plurality. Certainly it seems hardly likely that black people were seen as “animals” rather than “human”, as is widely supposed to have been a prevalent view during the slave trade, and yet for a black man to be tolerated in the highest echelons of society.

Of course, it must be remembered that musicians in the 18th century were nothing more than fancy servants, so not too much should be read into Saint-Georges’ social position. Indeed, and perhaps ironically, he was thrown into destitution after the revolution of 1789 since he was seen as a lackey of the hated aristocrats. But many composers died in destitution, Mozart being a prime example, and yet their reputations have survived and even perhaps been enhanced as a result of the romantic notion of the tortured artist. What has prevented Saint-Georges from being better known?

My suspicion is that his obscurity is a result of the racism that dominated Europe and the Americas after the end of the slave trade, rather than of the racism that existed during his lifetime. Be that as it may, Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is yet another example of black people’s contribution to the arts and society having been effectively expunged in our modern consciousness. If anyone ever asks you if there have been black composers of classical music before the mid-20th century, you will now be able to say, “Yes”, even if you might have said, “No” yesterday!

Don’t be fooled – the Libyan no-fly zone has very little to do with humanitarian angst

I wrote recently, and admittedly cynically, about how the West seems to go about deciding which oppressed peoples it “defends” by armed intervention, and which through platitudinous cliché. The UN approval for an enforced no-fly zone in Libya is presented as purely and simply a response to humanitarian need. That is not, sadly, what this is about.

Whilst America was seemingly sitting on the fence, a supporter of Barack Obama made a refreshingly sanguine assessment of the situation. He said plainly that American strategic interests were not particularly threatened by Colonel Gaddafi re-taking those parts of Libya over which he has recently lost control. American interests were served by “stability”. It is of little interest to America whether that stability is achieved at the expense of the peoples of the region, or not. Indeed, as I have also argued in this blog, the West generally and America in particular have been very happy indeed to support oppressive régimes where they have judged the oppression to result in a stable and predictable geo-political environment.

So what’s changed? Ignore the heartfelt pleas on behalf of the endangered people of Benghazi. Disregard the sudden emergence of humanitarian rapprochement between Britain and France. Dismiss the rhetoric about democracy. You will find no answer to the question there.

Rather, what has changed are three interconnected adjustments in the assessment of strategic advantage by different players. First, the Arab League now judges that it is time to cut Gaddafi loose. They have supported him heretofore, fêted him, and called him a brother. Now they see what is happening elsewhere in their backyards and feel worried. The calculus has changed, and they feel that naked oppression will no longer work. This is no conversion to humanitarian commitment. It is neither more, nor less, than a calculation of risk.

Second, America is playing a very canny game indeed. It knows that being in the vanguard in yet another Muslim country in order to pursue its strategic interests will isolate it further, cost it more, and reduce its influence more rapidly, than if it appears to be a reluctant guest at a democratic party.

Third, Russia and China no longer see a balance of power in the Middle East as being of much significance to them. The energy game is changing. Russia is stronger, America weaker, and China more needy than they were 10 years ago. At the same time, the Chinese economy will soon be bossing the world as the American economy has done since WW2. America and China will need to deal with their political differences directly with one another, rather than through the proxies of Middle Eastern influence.

Put all this together. The Arab League supports the no-fly zone. America can play the part of supporter rather than instigator. Russia and China do not need to play veto games in the Security Council. Hey presto, a no-fly zone is agreed in record time.

Don’t think I’m being cynical. If I were, I might also point out that Britain and France both need some external distractions just now. Protecting endangered Libyans might be just the ticket.

Château de Bouesse, part 2

Never go back. As me and the wife presented ourselves at the Château de Bouesse last Saturday evening those words were running through my mind with a steadily increasing insistence. My last visit had been so perfect in every way that I knew there was no prospect of the second having the slightest chance of equalling it. That might have been bearable if I’d been on my own, but having bigged the place up so much to my wife I knew that anything short of a stunning meal and a wonderfully romantic, and fully mediaeval, room would be a disaster. Just as when, after weeks of practice (I was never good at anything requiring even a modicum of coordination) I announced, “Mummy, I can ride my bike!” micro-seconds before coming an arm-flailing and knee-scraping cropper at the foot of the apple tree, things have a habit of coming right off the rails when you decide to show something to someone else. Especially if it’s a someone else you’re trying to impress.

But I dismissed the demons with a curt reminder to myself that there was no reason to suppose that childhood biking mishaps would reappear as adult château embarrassments, and that what was required was a positive attitude and none of this defeatist nonsense. And so by the time I approached the check-in desk equanimity had returned and confidence was on the up. That lasted fully as long as had my maiden bicycle ride, and with a similarly crushing finale. For whilst sir had most certainly reserved a chambre classique, it was soon apparent that sir had failed to reserve a table for dinner. With the kind of matter-of-fact hauteur that only the poshest of French hotel maîtres-d can deliver, Madame was désolée to report that the restaurant was complet ce soir and that was that. No, they could not squeeze us in, and no, it was not their problem. If we cared to hang around until 8pm, perhaps an existing guest might cancel. But then they might not. In the meantime, perhaps sir would like to inspect the room.

At that moment there was frankly very little that sir wanted to do that did not involve a nervous breakdown or a large hole opening up in the floor. We wandered upstairs, I in despair and disbelief, my wife in supportive defiance and what seemed to me to be a touching faith in the indecision of the average French diner. When we got to the room, as if to rub salt in my wounds, it was every bit as wonderful, romantic, and mediaeval as one could have wished. But its charms were ashes in my mouth. Disconsolately I began to unpack a few bits and pieces, but my heart was not in it. I went downstairs to receive the inevitable news that every diner was present and correct.

But unbeknown to me, Madame had had a personality transplant in the 15 minutes I’d been away. The frosty hauteur was banished, to be replaced by something almost jolly. She had spoken to the chef de cuisine. The chef de cuisine had declared his enthusiasm for cooking for us so long as we didn’t mind waiting until perhaps half past nine. Furthermore, Madame assured me with a conspiratorial sweeping gesture, she was even at that moment poised to usher two hapless existing diners out with unseemly haste if they did not vacate their table after the two generous hours they would have enjoyed by 9.30. We were to have our meal after all.

And damned fine it was too. My starter was a positively orgasmic trio of foie gras prepared with first a merely tepid and entirely liquid egg, and served in its shell, along with a seemingly disgusting, but in fact utterly delicious, foie gras crème brûlée complete with sugar crust, and finally a thick slab of the unadulterated liver. My wife enjoyed the perfection of the langoustines that I’d had at my original visit. I won’t detain you with the details of everything we gorged ourselves on, since that would be cruel. Just two small criticisms. The rack of lamb, although perfectly cooked, was encased in what looked like startlingly green marzipan and which included cheese for no apparent reason, and to no benefit of the dish. And last visit’s wonderful and generous cheeseboard had been ditched in favour of three desultory slices of mountain cheeses already lying on a pre-prepared and sad-looking plate. Doubtless this is a cost-cutting move, and one which seems increasingly common in otherwise blameless restaurants. It’s an economy which good restaurants should resist since it damages the diner’s pleasure much more than it saves the hotel money.

But all-in-all, after that morale-sapping beginning, my second visit to the Château de Bouesse was just about as good as it could have been, and I needed have had no fear about “never going back”. Plus I got to sleep in this superb room

and hang out of the top left of this tower’s windows like some princess waiting to be rescued.

It doesn’t come much better than this.

SatNavs and how I grew to love them

I’m not one of those people that spend their time and money desperately keeping up to date with the latest technological marvel. I possess nothing foisted upon the world by Mr Jobs’ poisonous-apple-logo-bearing technological top-hat, and generally I am proud of my allergy to anything that begins with an “e” or an “i” when it has no business to. It’s not that I’m a Luddite, but novelty in itself is not enough to make me fork out the hard-earned. If there is something that I’m interested in and want to use, then I’m very happy to spend shed-loads as my wife’s incredulity at the cost of my camera kit will prove. But my camera kit is also as it happens a good example of my restraint in the face of mere technological sexiness. I have a Nikon D300 which I bought in perhaps obscenely rapid succession to its D200 predecessor. The improvement in quality and usability between those two models is quite marked: but when Nikon upped the ante with their full-frame D700 I told them metaphorically to stuff it up their jumpers. Of course the bigger sensor provided a further boost in performance, but on the other hand I can print perfectly well up to A3+ from the D300, and into order to take advantage of the D700 I’d have to buy a whole new set of much more expensive lenses. Not even a flicker of temptation has ever passed across my mind.

My lack of being anywhere near the cutting edge of the techno-wars meant that it was quite a long time before my consciousness even acknowledged the existence of the satellite navigation gadget. And when I finally did, in about 2006, it was only in order to be able to mock it. A friend and I drove to a destination only about 30 miles up the M1. I was to leave the car I was driving there, and come back with the friend. I said I’d bring a map. A look of pity overtook her as she asked me what I wanted to do that for. All I needed to do was to follow her, as she would be arriving courtesy of directions given to her by a Mr Thomas Tom. I should of course have brought the map anyway, but I was so humiliated by her disbelief that I was still thus wedded to the technology of Mr Caxton that I was too embarrassed to do so. Suffice it to say that I got a lot more practice in 25-point turns in tiny country lanes with the very large and unfamiliar saloon car that I was driving (a Mercedes or Jaguar or something like that) than I either wanted or expected. When we finally arrived at the house we’d already driven past three times headed in various directions, my scorn was unconfined. It didn’t help that the friend was a woman who had proudly told me that although she had no idea where she had actually been in her many trips in Thomas Tom’s robotic company, it didn’t matter since she always arrived on time and devoid of any trace of fluster. As I acidly pointed out, not quite always.

A large part of my scorn was concerned with the very point that she had presented as such a benefit. By blindly following the device’s instructions, the traveller builds up no mental picture of where he or she is. It is an inevitable road to dependency, and that’s the only road the user gets to know. I used the same irresistible logic on my wife when she applied for a subsidy to purchase one for herself. Actually, the logic wasn’t all that irresistible as she managed to resist it with the simple riposte that that was fine, but in advancing the argument I was also guaranteeing to get her to, or rescue her from, the location of her choice at any time of her convenience.

Thus did one of Mr Thomas Tom’s closest relatives come to take up residence in our house. And not so very long afterwards when I had cause to go to an unfamiliar street I thought maybe I’d save myself the trouble of looking up my trusty A-Z – and in that fateful moment I was sucked into the satellite navigator’s deadly embrace. But I have managed to keep some small semblance of pride in my headlong fall under its spell. I use it mostly when in France, and I never ask it to work out the fastest or most efficient route. Rather, I require it to tell me the shortest route, and in doing so its literal computer mind takes me down all kinds of tiny roads and offers me wonderful vistas that I’d never think to seek out if I were using a map. And so I love my SatNav, but I love even more making it an unknowing accomplice in my most romantic and inefficient self-indulgence.