French gay marriage opponents stage Paris march

PARIS (REUTERS) - Tens of thousands of opponents of same-sex marriage marched in central Paris on Sunday in protest against a reform the unpopular government passed last month at the price of deepening political polarisation.

The historic Esplanade des Invalides was a sea of protesters waving trademark pink and blue flags, while far-right demonstrators hung a banner on the ruling Socialist Party headquarters calling for President Francois Hollande to quit.

The protests, which began as a grass roots campaign strongly backed by the Roman Catholic Church, have morphed into a wider movement with opposition politicians and far-right militants airing discontent with the unpopular Hollande.

Although just over half of French people support the law allowing same-sex marriage and adoption, and more than 70 percent believe the protests should now stop, the mass rallies have contributed to Hollande's low popularity ratings.

Plagued by economic recession, unemployment at more than 10 per cent and pressure to reduce the public deficit, the leader got some respite on Sunday, however, with news his record low popularity inched up four points to 29 percent this month.

Although it failed to block gay marriage, the protest movement hopes its show of force will stop or slow down further laws allowing assisted procreation and surrogate motherhood for gay couples that some Socialists want to legalise.

Frigide Barjot, the comedian who led three previous marches in the past six months, greeted out-of-town protesters arriving at a Paris train station but announced she would not take part because of threats of unrest by far-right groups.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls mobilised 4,500 police to secure the event. "We fear some action by far-right groups," he said on Saturday. "I advise families with children not to join this demonstration."

While leaders of Hollande's Socialist Party denounced the protest against a law already passed in parliament and validated by the Constitutional Council, the conservative opposition UMP party was split over whether to continue the rallies.

UMP President Jean-Francois Cope and several other party leaders joined the march and urged young protesters to join his party as a "new UMP generation" and campaign against the left-wing government.

But several other UMP leaders, including former conservative prime ministers Francois Fillon and Alain Juppe, kept their distance, saying lawmakers should exercise their influence in parliament rather than march in street protests.

France's first gay wedding is due to take place on Wednesday in Montpellier, France's self-proclaimed capital of gay culture.

France, a traditionally Catholic country, followed 13 others including Canada, Denmark, Sweden and most recently Uruguay and New Zealand in allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed.

In the United States, Washington D.C. and 12 states have legalised same-sex marriage.