With This Pact I Thee Unwed

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One of the most impassioned and acrimonious national battles in France's recent memory ground towards an end last week, when the country's Constitutional Council cleared a law giving unmarried hetero- and homosexual couples the same rights and status as married people. The law sparked heated debate during its 13-month journey towards passage, pitting socially progressive forces against traditionalists who claimed it would create an illegitimate replacement of the family unit.

The law creates a contractual partnership known as a "civil solidarity pact" (PACS) which supporters regard as a legal acknowledgement of a fait accompli. In a nation with some 2.5 million couples living together out of wedlock, some form of recognition and rights must be given to those who either don't want to get married or--as is the case for France's 300,000 gay couples--aren't allowed to. Opponents of the law, including conservative religious groups, see the PACS as undermining marriage, the family, and the moral framework of society.

But in addition to addressing changing demographic facts of French society, the PACS also became a political test of wills that Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin could not afford to lose. Along with reducing the work week from 39 to 35 hours, creating the PACS was one of the main campaign promises that helped sweep Jospin's leftist government to power in 1997. After initial defeat of the bill, Jospin and his allies were forced to scramble to ensure final passage last month, engaging in scathing verbal wars with conservative opponents. Despite the generally live-and-let-live French attitude towards gay and unmarried couples, the acidic political battle over the PACS gave a false impression of a nation divided between stodgy Catholic fundamentalists opposing the bill and liberal leftists seeking to make marriage and the family obsolete.

In fact, the impact of PACS is more symbolic than it is revolutionary. Three years after a PACS has been registered, it will grant unwed cohabitants in monogamous relationships many, but not all of the privileges married couples have long enjoyed, including the right to file taxes jointly, share ownership of assets and to demand matching vacation time from employers. It will not, however, alter the virtual ban on adoptions by unwed heterosexual and homosexual couples, nor fulfill demands by gays that they be allowed to legally marry.

Despite the political battle, most French people viewed the law's passage as a case of legislation finally catching up with reality. Surprisingly, many unwed couples seemed also unmoved, musing that the PACS managed to offer many of the constraints and bureaucracy of wedlock they'd sought to avoid in the first place.