French MPs have approved the most important article in a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, despite huge protests earlier in the month that saw hundreds of thousands of people mass in Paris to oppose the measure.
Deputies voted 249-97 in favor of redefining marriage as an agreement between two people, rather than between a man and a woman. The measure was backed by President Francois Hollande’s socialist party and their left-wing supporters, and was opposed by the UMP – the party of former President Nicholas Sarkozy – and many centrists MPs.
The draft bill is one of the biggest social reforms proposed in France since the abolition of the death penalty in 1982, and also includes provisions on gay adoption. The proposal has created a storm of protest both for and against gay marriage for months, with opinion polls suggesting that about 60 percent of France supports it, though only half support gay adoption.
The debate is expected to last two weeks, as more than 5,000 amendments have been proposed to the reform. Originally, a clause was included on assisted reproduction techniques for lesbians, but it was scrapped for being too controversial, as it threatened to derail the wider issue of marriage reform.
While opponents to the bill may be in the minority, they have been vocal about their feelings on the issue. According to police, some 340,000 people marched through Paris last month in opposition to gay marriage, in what because known as the 'manif pour tous' movement.
Those against the law have run a media-savvy campaign with no formal links to politicians or the church, in an effort not to be seen as homophobic bigots.
Their spokesperson is 50-year old Frigide Barjot, who describes herself as an “anarchist of love,” and argues that her views are not directed against gay people but against the way the proposed law is framed.
She claims that the law proposed by Hollande will “de-structure” society by “destroying the concept in law of a mother and a father.” However, “If what was on offer were a law that further enshrined rights for gay couples, and got rid of the discriminations and injustices that undoubtedly still exist – then I would support it,” she said.
Those against the legislation have also argued that giving gay couples the right to adopt will remove the fundamental right of a child to have a mother and a father.
Another reason for the fierce debate on the issue, and why those in opposition have been able to garner such a broad base of support, is the nature of French institutions. In France, couples who marry must first do so in a civil ceremony; only then may they have a religious wedding. In most other countries, a wedding conducted in church, synagogue or mosque is formally recognized by law.
In Spain and Portugal, which have recently adopted gay marriage legislation, while the state is duty-bound to marry homosexual partners, the church is not obliged to do so, meaning that many people opposed to the idea of gay marriage can still be content that a ‘proper’ marriage in a church protects traditional values.
However, a study by the liberal French think tank the Thomas Moore Foundation, found that in France there is no such separation and a feeling persists that the proposed change in the law will affect everyone, regardless of their views.
But the simple fact remains that gay marriage is supported by the majority of the French.
Supporters of gay marriage have staged their own demonstrations, 125,000 took to the Paris streets last weekend.
“When I see the people who protest against gay marriage, I am so disappointed for France. They talk about family first, but they should see that society has changed. The family today is not the same as the family yesterday. We have to rethink the whole concept of family,” one of the demonstrators, who called herself Magali, told the BBC.
Hollande was clear in his election manifesto last May that the legislation would go through, and political pundits have said that he has pushed hard for it as a way of reaffirming his progressive left-wing credentials.
Meanwhile, in the UK, it was reported by the Times that Prime Minster David Cameron is facing a revolt by members of his Conservative party over his plans to allow gay marriages in church in Britain.
British MPs will vote on it on Tuesday in a free, cross-party vote; even in the event of a Tory rebellion, Cameron can rely on getting it through the house with support from the Liberal Democrats and Labor.