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Will you PACS me, mon amour?

A civil alternative to marriage is gaining popularity in France.

March 01, 2009|Edward Cody | Cody writes for the Washington Post.

MARSEILLE, FRANCE — Arnaud, 27, loves Aurelie. Aurelie, 25, loves Arnaud. After several years of sharing an apartment, they decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.

So the happy young couple, who did not want their last names used, spent 15 minutes in front of a court clerk recently and got PACSd.

The brief procedure of the civil solidarity pact -- abbreviated in French as PACS -- put Arnaud and Aurelie among a growing number of French men and women who are choosing a novel legal and social status, halfway between living together and marriage.

"It's a first step toward marriage," Arnaud explained after the businesslike ceremony in a corner of Marseille's graceful courthouse complex, the Palais de Justice. Then he rushed back to his office, and the beaming Aurelie returned to her art history classes. The white dress, champagne and honeymoon would be for later, perhaps much later -- perhaps never.

The PACS was introduced a decade ago by the 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 to legalize gay unions. Under French law, same-sex couples are not allowed to marry.

In passing the law without making it specific to gay people, 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 cohabitation 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 formed in France each year, both gay and heterosexual, has grown from 6,000 in its first year, 1999, to more than 140,000 in 2008, according to official statistics. For every two marriages in France, a PACS is registered, the statistics show, making a total of half a million PACSd 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 have to make appointments three months in advance.

Perhaps more important as an indication of how French people live, the number of heterosexual men and women entering into a PACS has grown from 42% of the total initially to 92% 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 as undermining morality. 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' growing popularity, however, half a dozen 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.

Irene Thery, a professor at France's Higher Institute of Social Sciences who specializes in family issues, said that setting up a household without getting married has become a declaration of independence from religion and crusty social traditions -- and so common that more than half the babies in France are born out of wedlock.

The relaxation of marriage-related social strictures marks a significant departure from long-established French family traditions, particularly among political figures. As recently as the 1980s, then-President Francois 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 that 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 difficult. Dealing with the French administration can be an ordeal without legal documents attesting to a place of residence and a social status.

PACSd couples are given those benefits, but the unions are seen by some 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 alimony.

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