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Civil Rights

How much more tolerance can Europe take?

France has just taken a big step towards equal rights for homosexuals by allowing same-sex couples to marry. Across the EU, however, acceptance of civil partnerships varies considerably.

Liberty, equality, fraternity is France's liberal motto. But when it comes to the equality of homosexual couples with their heterosexual counterparts, France has yet to live up to its ideals. Civil partnerships for both hetero- and homosexual couples were introduced in France in 1999, but this still does not constitute perfect equality: Homosexuals are worse off when it comes to matters such as inheritance and adoption. In the coming weeks, the French Senate will decide whether to strengthen those rights for gay and lesbian couples.

The conservative opposition and the Catholic Church protested against the proposed law put forward by the Socialists. The protests show that some parts of French society are still homophobic. "They need scapegoats: They're angry, they're frustrated, they're confused, they're uncertain," Evelyne Paradis from ILGA-Europe, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, told DW in an interview. "With the economic crisis there has been a growing trend of going back to more conservative values," Paradis added.

People clash with riot police during a demonstration against France's gay marriage law in an attempt to block legislation that will allow homosexual couples to marry and adopt children, on March 24, 2013 in Paris. The hugely controversial bill to legalise same-sex marriage and adoption has been comfortably adopted by the lower chamber of parliament and will go to the Senate for examination and approval in April. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE ANDRIEU (Photo credit should read PIERRE ANDRIEU/AFP/Getty Images)

Demonstrations in France revealed an insecure society

She believes that the aggressive demonstrations in France reveal an insecure society. Traditional values and institutions, such as marriage and the classic family model, gain in importance in uncertain times. "Changes are taking place rather rapidly in Europe. In the last decade or so we've not only introduced protection against discrimination, but also more positive rights, like rights to marriage equality and adoption. It's a pretty drastic shift when you look at it, because people's mentalities haven't changed - or at least, not as quickly the laws," Paradis said.

Integration socially taboo?

In many European Union countries, gays and lesbians are not allowed to marry. Only seven countries, including Denmark, Iceland and Spain, allow homosexual couples to marry, with some also permitting church weddings. Liberal-minded member states have introduced registered partnerships for gay and lesbian couples. But each of the 27-member countries can decide for itself what rights and responsibilities these partnerships carry with them. This results in great discrepancies between different EU countries when it comes to settling issues of tax, inheritance and alimony rights. The main purpose of this kind of  "marriage light" is the provision of material security for partners. There is no consideration of the emotional or spiritual aspects of marriage.

Ardently Catholic countries, such as Italy and Poland, represent the absolute opposite end of the spectrum. Both are members of the EU, but when it comes to granting equality to homosexual couples, they are a very long way behind. They will put up with couples living together, but do not recognize any kind of mutual commitment between homosexuals.

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One law for all would be fatal, says Spahn

How can such a gulf exist within the EU, if states have agreed on common values and principles? Perhaps Europe's tolerance has reached its limit.

"If Brussels were to enforce such a thing, then maybe it would become law, but  it's not an accepted norm of society," says CDU parliamentarian, Jens Spahn, in an interview with DW. He calls for more rights for homosexuals, but a common law for the bloc would, he believes, be fatal. Such a move would more likely increase protests and anti-Brussels sentiment than generate acceptance, he says, adding that In southern and eastern European countries homosexuality is socially taboo.

Land of limited opportunities

The underlying principle of the alliance is for EU citizens to have the freedom to choose where they live. Evelyne Paradis' organization, together with the European Commission, criticizes the limited opportunities for movement afforded to homosexual couples within the EU bloc.

A gay couple from the Netherlands moving to Romania would not have the same rights and responsibilities as a heterosexual pair, because they would not be recognized as spouses. "That's obviously discrimination; that's an obvious violation of the principles and rights of EU citizens," says Paradis. She predicts that it's only a matter of time before all EU countries are prepared to fight homosexual discrimination across Europe.

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