The French Senate is debating whether to compensate gay people who were criminally condemned between 1942 and 1982, in a bid to “repair society’s error”.
Several thousand people were sanctioned for the then-crime of homosexuality during these four decades, most of whom were sent to prison.
The debate is taking place in the upper chamber today (November 22), after a proposal by Senator Hussein Bourgi of the Socialist Party.
“We have enough hindsight to be able to look back on this painful and inglorious past, and to recognise the mistakes that have been made,” the senator said. "A country grows when it is able to look at its past with perspective and detachment.”
He added: “What disturbed me when I tabled this bill was the number of colleagues who said to me, 'Hang on, this has already been done, hasn't it?’ It seems so obvious in the collective imagination that this should have been done a long time ago.”
What did the law in France say about homosexuality?
France technically decriminalised homosexuality in 1791, during the French Revolution. However, gay people - especially men - continued to be persecuted legally, with law enforcement officers leaning on two articles of the penal code.
The Vichy regime reintroduced discrimination between heterosexuals and homosexuals in 1942 - under the guise of protecting young people - by making the age of consent 21 for gay people (compared to just 13 and later 15 for heterosexuals).
This was later confirmed in article 331 of the Criminal Code. Article 330 on November 25, 1960 created the crime of ‘public indecency’ when committed against a person of the same sex. Both offences were punishable by up to six months to three years in jail, and a fine of several thousand francs.
Antoine Idier, sociologist and a historian specialising in homosexuality, told AFP: “Judges used a much wider range of criminal law and all kinds of articles to punish homosexuality, even though they were not explicitly designed to do this.”
Some people were convicted of “indecent assault” or “inciting a minor to debauchery”.
Homosexuality was only definitively decriminalised in France in 1982.
How many people were convicted under these laws?
There are no official figures, but the work of sociologists Jérémie Gauthier and Régis Schlagdenhauffen suggest that at least 10,000 people were convicted in France between 1942 and 1982 under article 331 of the Criminal Code.
These were almost exclusively working-class men, and a third were married, widowed or divorced. A quarter had children. And between 1945 and 1978, 93% of convictions involved a prison sentence.
Yet, there were also other convictions for homosexuality-related ‘offences’ based on other articles in the criminal code. Some convictions were made purely on ‘assumed’ homosexuality.
Mr Schlagdenhauffen, who has appeared before the senators as part of the debate, estimates that up to 50,000 people may have been convicted for homosexuality-related ‘crimes’.
What is being proposed to ‘pardon’ and compensate the people convicted?
Many people who were condemned already had their criminal record cancelled under the law of August 4, 1981.
Yet, the new proposal will seek to go further, and recognise France’s responsibility for "the policy of criminalisation and discrimination” against homosexuals. It also proposes the creation of a new offence - inspired by the offence of ‘Holocaust denial’ - for people who deny that people were deported from France due to their homosexuality.
An independent commission could also be created to compensate people convicted, with a minimum of €10,000, plus €150 for each day spent in prison, and reimbursement of any fines paid.
France would not be the first to offer this kind of compensation; Germany, Austria, Canada and Spain have already introduced a similar system.
Mr Schlagdenhauffen estimates that takeup of the system would be relatively low, and that “the overall sum should not exceed €2 million”.
‘Essential recognition of state homophobia’
Lawyer Joël Deumier, co-president of the association SOS Homophobie, told L’Obs that this “recognition” of the state’s role in prosecuting gay people is “essential”.
He said: “The consequences were very violent for the victims of this persecution, who were forced to hide for fear of being rejected or marginalised. This denial of self may have led to depressive or even suicidal behaviour and avoidance strategies.”
He added: “Homophobia still exists today because laws, regulations, and practices by the state legitimised this discrimination in the past. Homophobia today doesn’t come from nowhere.”
The proposed law will “raise awareness of the violence” to which gay people have been - and sometimes still are - subjected to in France, said Jean-Louis Lecouffe, from the Paris group of the LGBT and Christian association David et Jonathan. It would “rectify a time of terrible shame”, he said.
One man, Michel Chomarat, recalls being arrested for homosexuality-related crimes in 1977 in Paris, along with eight other men, during a raid on the gay bar, Le Manhattan.
He told France 3: “State homophobia meant hunting down homosexuals everywhere…At the time, when people were arrested for this sort of thing, there was often an article in the local press. Some people lost their jobs and others were driven to suicide. They didn't want anyone to know.”
Mr Chomarat has also said that he hopes that France will “face up to its past, even if it is not glorious”, but said he regrets that the bill has come “so late”, with many of the people concerned having already died.
In an open letter, published in June 2022, a group of activists, trade unionists and elected representatives called on France to recognise and rehabilitate the thousands of victims of anti-gay repression.
It said that several thousand men were prosecuted and convicted “in the name of the French people” for having consensual sexual relations with other men.
“With this sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, a whole generation of LGBTQI+ people lived in fear, under the threat of homophobic legislation,” it added.
How likely is the law to pass?
It is not yet clear.
On the one hand, the bill has been signed by senators from across the political divide, including the Socialist, Ecologist and Communist groups, as well as by radical, centrist and right-wing parties.
But on the other hand, the text did not meet with the approval of the Senate's Law Committee (a group of senators chaired by François-Noël Buffet that examines draft bills). A number of “legal difficulties” in the bill were raised by rapporteur Francis Szpiner, including, he said, the fact that it exceeds “the maximum period [of 30 years] during which a loss may be compensated”.
The rapporteur also said that the other countries to have adopted a similar system - such as Germany or Spain - have a history of anti-gay oppression that “differs significantly from that of France”.
For example, there were more than 90,000 convictions in Germany, and Franco’s Spain had a “wider homophobic policy” for decades. He also said that the deportation of gay people during World War Two was already covered by the “Holocaust denial” law of July 1981.
Yet, Mr Szpiner said that he would be in favour of “recognising that the legislature made a mistake in making homosexuality a criminal offence”.