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Julie Gayet at the gala premiere for Blood Ties at the 66th Festival de Cannes. May 20, 2013 Cannes, France. Photo by Featureflash / Shutterstock.com.

The French tend to glorify their open-mindedness in these matters and flatter themselves by comparing their values to French perceptions of those “puritanical” Americans who still pay so much attention to traditional marriage and traditional family values. And while they may be dead wrong — one should not make too much out of historic parallels – it’s worth considering some earlier precedents.

Take Old Rome, for Instance

Roman marriage was originally a religious ceremony known as confarreatiojust as until very recently religious marriage was an essential part of French family life. A Roman marriage took place in front of priests and ten witnesses. Husbands were supposed to enjoy full authority (manus) over their wives, but abuse of power — like selling one’s wife into slavery or prostitution — was deemed to be criminal. Divorce procedures were lengthy and costly; some husbands could be requested to give away half their assets and money to their repudiated spouse.

Over the years, an alternative marriage known as coemptio was devised: husbands bought their wives for a copper coin in front of five witnesses. From the Romans’ perspective, this was a purely civilian ceremony, and was performed without priests — a fact that allowed for the wife’s almost complete emancipation in most private and financial matters. But even that proved too much: common-law marriage, usus, eventually prevailed. Spouses were now free partners living together for their mutual benefit and entitled to separate at will.

The rationale behind the gradual loosening of Roman marriage was concern about the low birthrate and depopulation — the unintended and inevitable consequence of greed and hedonism among the elite and large-scale slavery. Religious or even full-fledged civilian marriage was burdensome; moreover they could not take place between aristocrats and plebeians, or between free men and slaves. Usus, however, was feasible whatever the circumstances. From Augustus on, it was increasingly backed by government and law. In contemporary France, Hollande-style informal partnerships have gradually become the norm and even the legal norm for similar reasons: in order to reconcile sexual freedom and chaotic social or economic conditions with the need to produce at least a few children.

Roman usus was of little help. Depopulation went on, compounded by pandemics and other health disasters. The Roman Empire turned to a last option: to let foreign nations in as auxiliaries of all sorts. The Arabization of the eastern parts of the Roman Empire was already a fact in the third century, more than three centuries before the rise of Islam: Queen Zenobia of Palmyra (Zainab in Arabic), a Romanized Arab ruler, almost carved for herself in 271 BC a new empire encompassing Eastern Anatolia, the Levant and Egypt. The Germanization of the Roman West started at about the same time and was completed during the fifth century, when barbarian kingdoms substituted for a collapsing Western Roman Empire.

Likewise, the decline of marriage and family in contemporary France (and most other European country) is evidently linked to an ever growing immigration from non-European countries, including staunchly Islamic Arab and African countries.