There is a new way of popping the question in France since 15 November. ‘Sign a Solidarity Pact with me’ lacks poetry, but it is a proposal that gay people can make. So far 13,000 couples have said yes, and in some big cities they are now having to queue to do it. Irina and I ‘PACSed’ in February, and in the rural part of eastern France where we live, we were couple number 28.
The PACS law was adopted after 105 hours of raging debate in the National Assembly, where the role of Baroness Young was surely played by Christine Boutin, the spokesperson for the United Democratic Front. She railed about the collapse of society for five hours and twenty seven minutes and actually wept during the second reading of the bill. Best Supporting Actor was the Bishop of Lyons.
The Government turned a blind eye to all apocalyptic and apoplectic visions, and here the award for Best Character Part should undoubtedly go to the Justice Minister, Elisabeth Guigou, whose icy cool could reverse global warming. She maintained that the PACS is nothing more than a cunning form of debt-collection, which will bring a significant part of the population within a legal framework and make one partner responsible for the other’s debts.
And is it? This is still unclear. We know we have gained some civil rights as a couple – for instance, the right to be hospitalised (or imprisoned) near to each other; to receive compassionate leave in case of the other’s death and to receive automatic title to our flat; to inherit each other’s estate at the tax rate of married people; to claim our holiday leave together and to include the name of the other on our national insurance policy. The PACS gives no right to have or adopt children; and does not guarantee a foreign partner an automatic residence permit in France. That still seems to be a question for individual courts and Prefectures – although recently a handful of appeals to stay in the country have succeeded. In exchange for these things, Irina and I must support each other financially, share ownership of our belongings, and in three years’ time pay joint taxes. While one of us is working the other cannot claim Social Security.
There is certainly no whiff of romance about the PACS. As we were registering our application, the Greffier at the Tribunal d’Instance grumbled over her keyboard that they had had no training or extra staff to cope with the new law, while a silent man who was never introduced flicked through our papers. Twelve thousand town councils threatened to boycott the PACS because it had been badly prepared and a major complaint of the people who oppose the law is that no one knows how it will work.
They may have a point. At every stage of our application we were given the wrong information – from the Tribunal d’Instance who told us that two foreigners cannot ‘PACS’, to the notary who advised us we could dispense with one of the documents we needed. A major part of the pact is a legal agreement on property, but we could find no guidelines about what needs to go into it: no joke when neither of you is a lawyer or native speaker. The best guidance came from ActUp in Paris.
You make a PACS through your local authorities, and you need written proof that you share an address in the neighbourhood. This is something to bear in mind if your usual home is in the UK and you are thinking of ‘PACSing’ in France. Five other proofs are needed too: that you are not in another PACS; that you are not married; not related; not a minor; and not under anyone’s guardianship. If your legal system is different from the French one, these are not easy things to provide. The British Embassy in Paris told me there is no way the government can confirm I am not married: I simply had to ‘promise on my honour’. Looking for proof from Russia, long distance, is even harder. Eventually we got by with four ‘promises on our honour’ witnessed by a lawyer.
After one false start – when we had to go and collect the document the lawyer had overlooked – we got out of the Tribunal quite late, when the shops are shut and the restaurants not yet open. But a nice barman let us celebrate with champagne out of hours in his deserted Tapas Bar, looking on to the river. We did not wear matching accessories.