PARIS — Some are divorced and disenchanted with marriage; others are young couples ideologically opposed to marriage, but eager to lighten their tax burdens. Many are lovers not quite ready for old-fashioned matrimony.
Whatever their reasons, and they vary widely, French couples are increasingly shunning traditional marriages and opting instead for civil unions, to the point that there are now two civil unions for every three marriages.
When France created its system of civil unions in 1999, it was heralded as a revolution in gay rights, a relationship almost like marriage, but not quite. No one, though, anticipated how many couples would make use of the new law. Nor was it predicted that by 2009, the overwhelming majority of civil unions would be between straight couples.
It remains unclear whether the idea of a civil union, called a pacte civil de solidarité, or PACS, has responded to a shift in social attitudes or caused one. But it has proved remarkably well suited to France and its particularities about marriage, divorce, religion and taxes — and it can be dissolved with just a registered letter.
“We’re the generation of divorced parents,” explained Maud Hugot, 32, an aide at the Health Ministry who signed a PACS with her girlfriend, Nathalie Mondot, 33, this year. Expressing a view that researchers say is becoming commonplace among same-sex couples and heterosexuals alike, she added, “The notion of eternal marriage has grown obsolete.”
France recognizes only “citizens,” and the country’s legal principles hold that special rights should not be accorded to particular groups or ethnicities. So civil unions, which confer most of the tax benefits and legal protections of marriage, were made available to everyone. (Marriage, on the other hand, remains restricted to heterosexuals.) But the attractiveness of civil unions to heterosexual couples was evident from the start. In 2000, just one year after the passage of the law, more than 75 percent of civil unions were signed between heterosexual couples. That trend has only strengthened since then: of the 173,045 civil unions signed in 2009, 95 percent were between heterosexual couples.
“It’s becoming more and more commonplace,” said Laura Anicet, 24, a student who signed a PACS last month with her 29-year-old boyfriend, Cyril Reich. “For me, before, the PACS was for homosexual couples.”
As with traditional marriages, civil unions allow couples to file joint tax returns, exempt spouses from inheritance taxes, permit partners to share insurance policies, ease access to residency permits for foreigners and make partners responsible for each other’s debts. Concluding a civil union requires little more than a single appearance before a judicial official, and ending one is even easier.
It long ago became common here to speak of “getting PACSed” (se pacser, in French). More recently, wedding fairs have been renamed to include the PACS, department stores now offer PACS gift registries and travel agencies offer PACS honeymoon packages.
Even the Roman Catholic Church, which initially condemned the partnerships as a threat to the institution of marriage, has relented; the National Confederation of Catholic Family Associations now says civil unions do not pose “a real threat.”
While the partnerships have exploded in popularity, marriage numbers have continued a long decline in France, as across Europe. Just 250,000 French couples married in 2009, with fewer than four marriages per 1,000 residents; in 1970, almost 400,000 French couples wed.
Germany, too, has seen a similar plunge in marriage rates. In 2009, there were just over four marriages per 1,000 residents compared with more than seven per 1,000 in 1970. In the United States, the current rate is 6.8 per 1,000 residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
France is not the only European nation to allow civil unions between straight couples, but in the few countries that do — Luxembourg, Andorra, the Netherlands — they are not as popular. In the Netherlands in 2009, for example, there was just one civil union for every eight marriages.
If current trends continue in France, new civil unions could soon outnumber marriages, as they already do in Paris’s youthful 11th Arrondissement.
François Lambert, 28, and his girlfriend, Maud Moulin, 27, signed a civil union in 2007 for what he described as logistical reasons. Both public schoolteachers, they would be assured of postings to the same district only if they filed joint tax returns, which civil unions allow.
“We didn’t have time to prepare for a marriage,” he said. “It was a question of speed.”
Sophie Lazzaro, 48, an event planner in Paris, signed a civil union in 2006 with her longtime companion, Thierry Galissant, who is 50. (She said she was drawn to a civil union largely for the legal protections and stability it offered.)
“I have two daughters, and if something happens to me, I want us to stay together as a family,” she said. “But without getting married.”
In addition to their practical advantages, she said, civil unions are ideologically suited to her generation, which came of age after the social rebellions of the 1960s. “We were very free,” she said. “AIDS didn’t exist, we had the pill, we didn’t have to fight. We were the first generation to enjoy all of this.” She added, “Marriage has a side that’s very institutional and very square and religious, which didn’t fit for us.”
Though French marriages are officially concluded in civil ceremonies held in town halls, not in churches, marriage is still viewed here as a “heavy and invasive” institution with deep ties to Christianity, said Wilfried Rault, a sociologist at the National Institute for Demographic Studies.
“Marriage bears the traces of a religious imprint,” he said, often anathema in a country where secularism has long been treated as a sacred principle. “It’s really an ideological slant, saying, ‘No one is going to tell me what I have to do.’ ”
For some, civil unions are simply a form of premarital engagement. Ms. Anicet, the student, said she and her boyfriend would probably be married were they not of different religions. She is Catholic, he is Jewish, and his mother disapproves of marrying outside the faith, Ms. Anicet said.
“We’re realizing that this is a test,” she said, “a way to get our families used to it.”
Though the two had considered a civil union for tax reasons, now “it’s a jumping-off point to getting married, later,” she said, adding after a pause, “I hope.”