20 years of France’s civil union, the PACS (Pacte Civil de Solidarity): An increasingly popular option

Since its instatement in 1999, France’s Pacte Civil de Solidarité (PACS) civil union has become increasingly popular. In the space of a few years, the annual number of couples getting “PACSed” has pulled considerably closer to the annual number of marriages. INED researcher Wilfried Rault has examined in detail how PACSing has evolved in twenty years, drawing on several sources and in particular the joint INED-INSEE Étude des Parcours Individuels et Conjugaux (EPIC) survey [Study of individual and conjugal trajectories]. Data from this survey are extremely valuable in analyzing the civil union, especially when it comes to characterizing differences between married and PACsed people and clarifying the various uses of this type of union.

How PACS figures have evolved since 1999

According to figures from the French Ministry of Justice and INSEE, the number of PACS unions has risen greatly in the twenty years it has been an option. While approximately 20,000 PACS unions per year were recorded during the early years (one-fourth being same-sex couples), in 2017 there were 193,950 such unions, 186,614 of which involved different-sex couples (96.2%). Marriage, on the other hand, has been declining in France for the last 50 years. In the early 1970s, 400,000 couples got married in France; by 1983 the figure had fallen to under 300,000; and in 2017 it stood at 233,915, of which 226,671 were different-sex couples. While the two types of union are in competition, they can also be complementary: approximately half of PACS dissolutions were preliminary to marriage. The PACS gives couples certain rights and may therefore make it more attractive than marriage, an option that may seem premature. Couples can opt for a type of union perceived as first level of commitment, with marriage a further horizon. This produces more diverse conjugal trajectories than marriage alone, including PACS + marriage. Moreover, the legalization of same-sex marriage in France in 2013 did not have a massive impact on the annual number of PACS unions among that population of couples, a finding that confirms what was already observed for different-sex couples. In sum, the two arrangements have each found their raison d’être.

Differences between PACSed people and married people

Data from the EPIC survey (7,825 respondents aged 26 to 65) allow for comparing people who got PACSed and people who got married since the PACS was instated in 1999 and who were in a union in 2013-2014. The social characteristics of the two groups are not that different, though in the years immediately after the PACS became an option they were considerable. In fact, the differences between them become slightly sharper if we look at aspects related to individuals’ conjugal and family trajectories. For example, PACSed persons are more often childless than married persons (27% compared to 11%), and those who are parents usually have only one child. This may be due to the fact that the text of the PACS law pertains solely to the couple, whereas certain clauses in French marriage law concern parenthood and filiation. Moreover, PACSed people, though young on average, more often report having been in relationships before their present union: 31% of PACSed persons say their current union is their “first important couple or love relationship,” whereas the figure for married persons is 45%. The EPIC survey also allows for exploring other individual characteristics, such as distance from religion and position on the political spectrum. PACSed persons more often say they have no religion than married people (38% vs. 26%). Politically, more PACSed persons identify as “left-wing” or “far left” while married persons more often say they have “no political opinions” (30%, vs. 20% of people in a PACS). Nationality is also an important factor, as the PACS has little to offer in the way of residence rights and cannot be used, contrary to marriage, as a basis on which to apply for French citizenship.

Uses of the PACS

The reasons people give for choosing the PACS (or marriage) and how they celebrate those events give us a finer understanding of how the two types of union are used and how individuals appropriate them. These points are covered in the EPIC survey, which finds that three-quarters of PACSed persons mention the instrumental aspects of their arrangement (legal, tax-related, administrative) as against only 16% of married people in connection with marriage. One third of PACSed people say that that is the sole reason they chose this form of union (though the rights that come with the PACS do not make it more attractive than marriage), as against 5% of married people speaking about their type of union. These contrasts clarify the fact that the two types of union do not involve the same stakes and issues or have the same meaning. And the different choices and reasons also generate quite distinct ways of celebrating unions. Marriage is almost systematically accompanied with a collective celebration, a party: only 1% of the people who got married after 1999 and were still married in 2013 did not celebrate their wedding this way. But newly PACSed couples are much less likely to celebrate the event: only 50% do. These disparities are closely tied to the different nature of the two types of union: while marriage is a public institution (as attested by the publication of marriage banns; the option of adopting spouse’s last name; the institutional, official character of the ceremony in France, which necessarily takes place in the presence of a vital statistics officer, if not a local official, and witnesses), the PACS is a more ambivalent arrangement. It is “recorded” and not “celebrated,” and it lends itself to privatization. However, the PACS is not used homogeneously in this connection. We can roughly distinguish two ways of using it. One involves primarily legal considerations; in this case the event is seldom feted or staged by its protagonists. The other set of PACSees celebrate the event and more readily associate it with conjugal commitment and more symbolic considerations.

Sources : « Is the PACS the Future of Marriage? The Several Meanings of the French Civil Union”, International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 33 (2), 2019; L’invention du Pacs. Pratiques et symboliques d’une nouvelle forme d’union, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, collection « Sociétés en mouvement », 2009, 

Contact : Wilfried Rault (INED)

Online : October 2019

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