This summer, I attended my first French wedding. In many ways it closely resembled what I would consider a typical American service: big white dress for the bride, ceremony at the church, pictures that seemed to take way too long…
There was one major difference, however. Unlike the U.S., a wedding held in France outside of the town hall (our equivalent of a court- house) is not considered valid. Every couple must first proceed to the town hall to be married by a state-appointed officiant, and then can have a religious ceremony if they choose.
For this particular wedding, the bride was from a small town where the officiant had known her and her family since she was little. Still, there was a slight ‘assembly line’ feel to the wedding, since we had to wait for the 3:00 wedding to leave the town hall, and after, had to make room for the 5:00 wedding.
All huddled into the small ‘wedding room’ (standing room only for most wedding guests), we listened to what appeared to me as a strange mix of administration and heartfelt speeches. The very first step in the ceremony was for the officiant to ask the bride and groom if they agreed to the marriage contract. In other words, they both said ‘I do’ within the first five minutes of the ceremony. Then the officiant proceeded to read the entire marriage law to them (so they would know what they were consenting to is how a French person explained it to me). I suppose it makes sense to begin with this point, but there was no more suspense! For me it felt like we were starting from the end of the ceremony and working backwards. The rest of the ceremony included some speeches and the signing of the wedding registry.
On a somewhat but not entirely unrelated note, on a recent trip to Paris I made a stop at the Panthéon. The Panthéon is a famous building in the Latin quarter. Originally built as a church, it now is a sort of strange mix of many different sights to visit: lots of graves of famous French men and women (writers like Victor Hugo and Emile Zola, World War II resistant fighters like Jean Moulin, etc.), huge wall murals dedicated to Saint Geneviève, and a copy of a Foucault pendulum. Why is this so weird? France still wants to honor its famous and accomplished predecessors, but essentially couldn’t bury these people in a church because of the separation of church and state (la laïcité is the official term). So, it took an old church and relabeled it a secular mausoleum.
For me, the symbol of the Panthéon is linked to the wedding I attended. There are many examples of how the separation of church and state play out in daily life, but I think this really illustrates how it affects both the very public (honoring great people from French history) to the private (a wedding).