One-third of French couples, mostly straight, opt for PACS

by on February 16, 2009  •  In Family law

From the Washington Post, an article on a French law that creates an alternative status to marriage. Originally intended for same-sex couples, it is increasingly popular with heterosexual couples, who now comprise more than 90 per cent of those who opt for it:  [note: see update after the jump]

The  Civil Solidarity Pact, or PACS in its French-language abbreviation, [is] a novel legal and social status, halfway between living together and marriage, that is helping change the way France organizes its families.

The PACS was introduced a decade ago by France's then-Socialist Party government. Parliament approved the measure only after a fierce debate because, although its wording was deliberately ambiguous, the arrangement was understood mainly as a way for gay couples to legalize their unions even though under French law they are not allowed to marry.

In passing the law without making it specific to gays, however, France distinguished itself from other European countries that have approved civil unions or even marriage for same-sex couples. As a result of that ambiguity, the PACS broadened into an increasingly popular third option for heterosexual couples, who readily cite its appeal: It has the air of social independence associated with the time-honored arrangement that the French call the "free union" but with major financial and other advantages. It is also far easier to get out of than marriage.

The number of PACS celebrated in France, both gay and heterosexual unions, has grown from 6,000 in its first year of operation in 1999 to more than 140,000 in 2008, according to official statistics. For every two marriages in France, a PACS is celebrated, the statistics show, making a total of half a million PACSed couples, and the number is rising steadily. Yves Padovani, chief clerk at the Marseille court, said couples stream through his office every day at half-hour intervals and make appointments three months in advance to get a slot.

Perhaps more important as an indication of how French people live, the number of heterosexual men and women entering into a PACS agreement has grown from 42 percent of the total initially to 92 percent last year.

That was not what conservative opponents of the measure foresaw in 1999. They viewed it as an encouragement of homosexuality and organized rallies to denounce the Socialists for undermining morality in France. Christine Boutin, housing minister under conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, was among the most vociferous critics and still complains that the PACS harms society by serving as a substitute for marriage.

In recognition of the PACS's growing popularity, however, a half-dozen French cities, skirting the terms of the law, have recently begun holding marriage-like PACS ceremonies in the often ornate city hall rooms formerly reserved for weddings. Most of those cities are run by Socialist mayors. But Christian Estrosi, mayor of Nice and a close Sarkozy ally, also has put his city on the list, indicating rising acceptance of PACS unions even among political conservatives.

Nadine Morano, Sarkozy's minister of state for family affairs, recalled in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper recently that it was Sarkozy who, as finance minister, revised French tax laws to extend marriage-like deductions to PACSed couples. She said she favors legislation to make city hall PACS ceremonies the rule rather than the exception.

Moreover, the social stigma once associated with having children outside marriage has largely disappeared. Justice Minister Rachida Dati gave birth to a daughter last month, attracting attention not because she was unmarried but because she refused to reveal who the father was. Ségolène Royal, the unsuccessful Socialist Party presidential candidate in 2007, was an unmarried mother of four.

The relaxation of marriage-related social strictures marks a significant departure from long-established French family traditions, particularly among political figures. As late as the 1980s, then-President François Mitterrand maintained a tight silence — largely respected by the news media — about the daughter he had fathered with a longtime mistress.

But even though their arrangements are now socially accepted, unmarried couples living together have found they face financial and administrative disadvantages compared with their married friends. Joint income tax returns can lower the annual bill considerably. Inheritance laws make transferring property to someone who is not a legal spouse more expensive and more difficult. Dealing with the French administration can be an ordeal without legal documents attesting to a place of residence and a social status. Many schoolteachers living together without marriage also decide to get PACSed so they can benefit from a government policy seeking to assign legally joined couples to schools in the same city.

But PACS unions are also seen as more appealing than marriage because they can be dissolved without costly divorce procedures. If one or both of the partners declares in writing to the court that he or she wants out, the PACS is ended, with neither partner having claim to the other's property or to alimony.

[Many PACSed couples] plan to get married at some point, perhaps within a year, but could not afford the cost of a wedding yet. "This is a first step toward our marriage," one man said. In that vein, government statistics show [that] one-sixth of PACSed couples that end their unions do so because they want to get married.


UPDATE – As is evident from my earlier posts (such as this), I think that it is important and good for alternatives like PACS to be open to heterosexual couples, although I would also make marriage open to same-sex couples. Andrew Sullivan disagrees:

… the gay movement, in its support for civil marriage equality, is a force right now for social conservatism; and the Christianist movement is the one fomenting the real attack on the institution of marriage. Christianist doctrine – unrelated to the social facts of our time – is, in fact, a social solvent. It helps destroy the family (ask the Haggards); it undermines civil marriage's uniqueness; and it discourages social responsibility. That's because it is about maintaining the stigma toward homosexuality rather than about supporting the important social role of marriage in keeping society together.

As I have said many times, Christianism is not, properly understood, a force for social conservatism; it is a force for denial, religious neurosis and social decay. Which is why those parts of America that are most imbued with Christianist cant often have such higher levels of divorce, abortion, illegitimacy and family breakdown.


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