The PACS was introduced a decade ago by France's 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 for gay couples to legalize their unions even though under French law they are not allowed to marry.
In passing the law without making it specific to gays, 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 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 celebrated in France, both gay and heterosexual unions, has grown from 6,000 in its first year of operation in 1999 to more than 140,000 in 2008, according to official statistics. For every two marriages in France, a PACS is celebrated, the statistics show, making a total of half a million PACSed couples, and the number is rising steadily.
,,,even though their arrangements are now socially accepted, unmarried couples living together have found 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 more difficult. Dealing with the French administration can be an ordeal without legal documents attesting to a place of residence and a social status.
"So we had a lot of couples in free unions, and there were a lot of rights they didn't have, especially the right to file their taxes together," Théry said.
Of course, the French are far ahead of us in matters of marriage and sexuality. In our country you are either married (or in a few states have a civil union) or you're not. Even couples that don't get married can find themselves declared to be in a marriage by a court by virtue of the long-standing tradition of common law marriages, and there's little room in family law for the recognition of legal rights and obligations in relationships that never become marriages. I don't know if we are ready for or even need a hybrid between long-term relationship and actual marriage, but what I thought was most interesting was the idea that the legal privileges can be extended to relationships that aren't called marriages. There are many proponents of gay marriage in our country who believe that the state shouldn't be in the business of blessing the legal union of couples as "marriages"; that rather, the government should recognize and enforce the legal rights and obligations of those who are (or can be considered for entitlement purposes) married, but stay out of deciding who can and cannot be married in the first place. France hasn't quite enacted what Stephanie Coontz proposes in the article I link to above, but they've certainly lowered the bar. It's a lesson we should consider learning for ourselves.