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Notre-Dame suicide on the altar of same-sex marriage

Story highlights

  • Historian and writer Dominique Venner shot himself inside Notre Dame Cathedral
  • 78-year-old right-wing activist was an opponent of France's new same-sex marriage law
  • Controversial law signed after lengthy, sometimes bitter and angry debate
  • Poirier: Divide over law is both political and generational

The gesture couldn't have been more dramatic, nor the setting more grand: 78-year-old French writer and historian Dominique Venner chose the altar of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to shoot himself in front of about 1,500 horrified visitors. Just before pulling the trigger, he had meticulously laid a letter on the altar for the police.

Venner, a former paratrooper and member of the Secret Army Organization (OAS), a group opposed to Algeria's independence and which waged a war of terror against Charles de Gaulle and his government in the early 1960s, was a theorist of the French Extreme Right.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the Extreme-Right National Front party, provoked controversy when immediately took to Twitter to salute Venner's "political gesture," concluding that he had tried "to wake France up."

"Venner's models were ancient Greece and ancient Rome, he was a pagan and an anti-Christian but chose a highly symbolic place of western civilization to kill himself, " commented Christophe Forcari in the French daily newspaper Libération.

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Lately, Venner's anger had focused on the same-sex marriage bill which became law last Saturday, and the abrogation of which, he thought, the French should seek in mass street protests. He dreamt, in fact, of a reactionary insurrection, a "French Spring."

    In a last post on his blog, he backed the anti-same-sex marriage march planned for this Sunday. He wrote that demonstrators were "right to shout their impatience and anger" and that laws could be overturned if the people shouted loudly enough. A xenophobe, he loathed multicultural France and called for radical and symbolic acts to "reawaken the memory of our origins."

    By committing suicide in such a fashion, Venner certainly hoped to show the way to like-minded radical militants; he recently wrote: "sometimes words are not enough, they need to be substantiated by acts."

    The four-month-long campaign on the same-sex marriage bill, during which supporters and protesters fought each other, sometimes violently, with hundreds of arrests, certainly antagonized the country in unexpected ways.

    If a majority of the French people backed equality of treatment and therefore civil union for all, with its strings of fiscal advantages, they did however split on the second part of the bill, and the question of adoption rights and access to IVF for gays and lesbians.

    Read more: Hollande signs same-sex marriage bill

    In France, unlike in Britain for example, adoption and IVF for gay couples -- alongside automatic joint parenting rights -- was still illegal until last Saturday and remains controversial, simply because it touches on the highly sensitive question of family and what family is made of.

    Surveys have showed that the divide is both political and generational: The Left is, for the most part, in favour of the same-sex marriage law while the hard Right, and leaders of the French Catholics, Muslims and Jews oppose it. The young, the educated and women are the main supporters of Hollande's law.

    The National Assembly was the theater where such French uneasiness played out: The bill required 172 hours of heated and angry discussion, and was the most debated in recent history. Even the laws introducing abortion in 1974, and the abolition of the death penalty in 1981, required fewer hours of debate in parliament and proved less contentious.

    France is the ninth country in Europe (and the 14th in the world) to adopt same-sex marriage. The first civil union of this kind, between two gay men, will take place in Montpellier next week. It will likely take years for the whole of French society to adjust to this new reality.