Senator Bourgi said his initiative is designed to 'rectify an error'
Senator Bourgi said his initiative is designed to 'rectify an error' AFP

France's Senate is this week to debate a draft law that would allow people convicted under anti-gay laws before 1982 to receive financial compensation.

Thousands of people were sentenced under two French laws in force between 1942 and 1982, one determining the age of consent for same-sex relations and the other defining such relations as an aggravating factor in acts of "public outrage".

The sponsor of the bill to be debated on Wednesday, Senator Hussein Bourgi of the Socialist party, said he wanted the French government to recognise the state's role in discriminating against people engaging in same-sex relations.

"This draft law has symbolic value," he told AFP.

"It aims to rectify an error that society committed at the time."

The punishments meted out by the courts had "consequences that were much more serious than you might think today", Bourgi said.

"People were crushed. Some lost their jobs or had to leave town," he said.

Beyond the government's recognition of wrongdoing, Bourgi said he also wanted an independent commission to manage financial compensation of 10,000 euros ($11,000) for each victim.

Antoine Idier, a sociologist and historian, called the initiative "salutary" but added that focusing on two laws of the period made it too restrictive.

"Judges employed a much wider judicial arsenal to repress homosexuality," he said, including laws that were not specifically aimed at same-sex relations but at "moral failings" or "inciting minors to commit depravity".

Michel Chomarat, now 74, was arrested in 1977 during a police raid on a gay bar called "Le Manhattan".

"Homophobia by the state consisted in hunting gays down everywhere," he told AFP.

The bar was a private space with restricted access "but even so, police took us away in handcuffs and accused us of public moral outrage", he said.

Chomarat said the draft law came "too late" because many people entitled to compensation had already died.

In an op-ed piece in LGBTQ+ magazine Tetu in June, activists, unionists and civil servants had already called for a recognition and rehabilitation of victims of anti-gay repression.

"One of the reasons why homophobia persists in today's society is that state laws, rules and practices legitimised such discrimination in the past," said Joel Deumier, co-president of SOS Homophobie, a non-profit organisation defending lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights.

For Bourgi's text to become law, first the Senate (the upper house of parliament) and then the National Assembly (the lower house) have to vote in favour.

During this process there are often negotiations about the final wording of a bill to make it acceptable to both houses.

There is precedent for the French initiative elsewhere in Europe.

Germany decided in 2017 to rehabilitate and compensate around 50,000 men condemned on the basis of "paragraph 175", a 19th-century law criminalising homosexuality that was broadened by Nazi Germany and repealed only in 1994.

Austria is elaborating a similar approach, to become law next year.

In Britain, where male anal sex became punishable by death under the Buggery Act of 1533, sexual relations between men were decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967, and later in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

But this was only if the sexual relations occurred in private and the people involved were over 21.

Under a recent "disregard and pardons scheme", people in Britain can get a historic conviction for gay sex offences removed from police and court records.

This includes convictions for "buggery", "gross indecency" and "procuring others to commit homosexual acts" -- all since abolished -- but not sexual activity in a public toilet, which is still an offence.

Regis Schlagdenhauffen, a social science professor at the EHESS school in Paris, said his research suggested that at least 10,000 people had been condemned for homosexuality in France between 1942 and 1982, mostly men from working-class backgrounds.

A third of them was married and a quarter had children, he said.

"Those condemnations brought disgrace and were a terrible experience to live through," said Schlagdenhauffen.

This was the reason why many victims of state repression might not come forward, he said, preferring not to revisit the traumatic experience.

The Senate -- the French upper house of parliament
The Senate -- the French upper house of parliament AFP