France to hold first gay wedding amid protest fears

MONTPELLIER, France (AFP) - France's first official gay wedding takes place on Wednesday in the southern city of Montpellier amid tight security and fears of protests after months of opposition that saw tens of thousands take to the streets.

Mr Vincent Autin, 40, and Mr Bruno Boileau, 30, will exchange vows at Montpellier city hall at 1530 GMT (11.30pm Singapore time) in the presence of hundreds of guests, including the Socialist government's spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.

Ms Vallaud-Belkacem said she was attending the ceremony as a private citizen and not a state representative, after the government backed away from sending officials fearing it would be accused of politicising the event.

"I have only invited friends and family. We didn't want to turn our marriage into a celebrity event," Mr Autin said.

Though officially a secular republic, France is overwhelmingly Catholic, and the issue of gay adoption and marriage - a key campaign pledge of President Francois Hollande - sparked a deeply divisive debate.

On Sunday, at least 150,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Paris in the latest in a series of protests to denounce the new law, which authorises both gay marriage and adoptions by same-sex couples.

The largely peaceful gathering later turned violent as riot police battled hundreds of right-wingers.

Opponents have vowed to protest at the marriage in Montpellier as well, and authorities have called in up to 100 police, with another 80 in reserve, to provide security.

"It is an exceptional event and we want everything to go as smoothly as possible," said Frederic Loiseau of the local prefect's office.

International media have been converging on Montpellier - known as the "French San Francisco" for its gay-friendly reputation - and Mayor Helene Mandroux, who will preside over the ceremony, said she was surprised by the interest.

"We are the 14th country to recognise gay marriage," she said.

"If there are so many journalists maybe it is because they were surprised by the reaction of opponents. They were astonished that there could be such violence in the country of human rights."

She said she would give a speech during the ceremony addressing the fact that "for weeks there has been a phenomenon of intolerance" in France.

Opposition to the measure started as a grassroots campaign backed by the influential Roman Catholic Church. The right-wing opposition then jumped into the fray and the movement ballooned.

Supporters and opponents of the bill began protesting last autumn when it was adopted by the cabinet and continued to hold regular demonstrations throughout the country as it made its way through France's parliament.

The definitive vote in the French parliament came on April 23, when the law was passed legalising both homosexual marriages and adoptions by gay couples.

Despite the widespread opposition, a survey published on Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche said nearly three-quarters of the French were tired of the protests and thought they should stop.

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