Don Murray: The French, and British, backlash against gay marriage

There was rejoicing Tuesday when the British Parliament gave approval in principle to same-sex marriage. But the fight within the governing Conservative party is far from over, Don Murray reports. The same in France, where a week-long filibuster is in play.

Will David Cameron face a caucus revolt?

Large crowds supporting the traditional views of marriage, like this one in Marseilles, popped up all over France on the weekend. (Associated Press)

Perfide Albion — perfidious Albion. The anguished cry rose  up, as if from the grave, from the bottom of the steeply-sloped, semi-circular French Assembly. Not for the first time. 

Today, the perfidious Englishman incarnate is David Cameron, the smooth-faced, smooth-talking Conservative prime minister of Britain, whose idea it was to legalize gay marriage and to have a free vote on the issue in the British House of Commons.

After six tumultuous hours of debate, British MPs voted 400-175 in favour of the measure, in favour at least of pushing it along the line to a parliamentary committee and, it is presumed, eventual passage.

Meanwhile, across the channel, French MPs were debating the same question at a more stately pace. The debate in Paris had taken, not six hours, but seven days and counting when the British parliamentarians voted. 

That's because French conservative MPs were furiously opposed to the measure, introduced by the socialist government of French president François Hollande. 

Unlike in Britain, "la droite française" is now in opposition.  Its leader, Nicolas Sarkozy, lost the presidential election last year. But that didn't stop the party's right-wing rump from introducing no fewer than 5,000 amendments to the proposed French bill on gay marriage in an attempt to filibuster it to death.

The forlorn rallying cry of the right-wing French is, "la France n'est pas l'Angleterre!"  – France is not England.  (Nor is it apparently Canada, northern Europe, Spain and, increasingly, the U.S. when it comes to championing the right to gay marriage.)

Pro-gay marriage demonstrators in France, a younger crowd for the most part, have also taken to the streets. (Associated Press)

This, of course, is not news; nor is it a very effective right-wing call to arms.

In the corridors of the French National Assembly, Socialist MPs strolled about mocking the conservative opposition.

"They're always invoking Conservative England when they talk about the economy," one Socialist laughed. Now, when it comes to trying to stop the gay-marriage train, "they're calling for help from liberals, super liberals, ultra liberals! Those are the people they usually denounce."

The 'nasty party'

But perfidious Cameron may have his own problems with this venture too.

This is a man who sits atop a party prone to periodic volcanic eruptions. The rumblings were so ominous over the idea of closer ties with Europe — regarded with loathing by a large number of Conservative MPs —  that Cameron, just days ago, announced that he would renegotiate Britain's position in the European Union; and then, if re-elected, he would organize a referendum to decide whether the country should stay in or get out. 

That temporarily calmed the euroskeptics in the party. The lava did not flow. But it may over gay marriage.

This measure was an attempt by Cameron to position his party as socially progressive in the run-up to the next election.  Something to counter the British Conservatives growing reputation as "the nasty party."

Just coincidence? The day after Britain's vote, Prime Minister David Cameron met with U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, one of the biggest supporters of same-sex unions. (Associated Press)

This, in large part, is because the government's draconian austerity measures have cut social security benefits for tens of thousands of Britons, and may soon lead to the so-called triple-dip — not a delicious new flavour of ice cream but the third economic recession in three years under Cameron's government. 

No British government in history has ever before managed this lamentable feat.

The new problem for Cameron, however, is that most of his Conservative backbenchers are not and do not want to be seen as socially progressive. 

They have been furiously and publicly opposed to same-sex marriage.  During the debate in the House of Commons, one pillar of the back benches, Edward Leigh, roared, "this is not evolution, it is revolution!"

He and 135 of his Conservative colleagues then either voted against the measure or abstained.

That meant that a majority of Cameron's own party had rebelled against their leader's stated policy. 

Cameron had heard the noises and did not even show up for the debate, preferring instead to record and distribute a video message.

"I'm a big believer in marriage," he said. "It helps people to commit to each other, and I think that's why gay people should be able to get married too," 

The measure was passed because the junior partners in Cameron's coalition, the Liberal Democrats, and the Labour opposition voted overwhelmingly in favour.

A big concern?

Polls show that a majority in Britain is in favour of same-sex marriage.

But the same polls show the question doesn't figure prominently among voters' concerns. 

The issue does, however, infuriate Cameron's rank and file as well as the newly-installed Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.  Among his first words in his new position were a warning not to pursue the path of legalized gay marriage.

The problem for Cameron is that the archbishop and backbench Conservative MPs speak for the people who must work to re-elect him in two years time.

"He hasn't got a lot of political capital left in the bank," Stewart Jackson, a Conservative MP who opposed the gay marriage bill, said before the vote. "He has to deliver some authentic Conservative policies very soon."

Amazingly, despite the fact that Cameron was the first of five Conservative leaders in four general elections to lead his party into government, there is now talk of dumping him. Jackson's comment was a scarcely-veiled threat. 

The scenario being discussed in the corridors of the British parliament is that of the political decapitation of Cameron if he doesn't win an outright majority at the next election.

If same-sex marriage is truly a revolution, as the Conservative backbench referred to it, well, revolutions can be bloody affairs.

Meanwhile, in the home of the first modern revolution, where they invented the guillotine and chopped off a king's head, legislators were photographed playing scrabble on their electronic tablets in the National Assembly as 'la droite française' fought on to prevent their country from looking too much like l'Angleterre.