French parliament debates gay marriage law

PARIS (AFP) - France's prime minister on Tuesday predicted that gay marriage will quickly be accepted by a country that has spent months embroiled in rancorous debate between supporters and opponents of the rights of same sex couples to wed and adopt children.

As legislation to that effect was presented to parliament, bridges throughout Paris were bedecked with banners proclaiming opposition to the Socialist government's draft law.

With slogans like, "A father and a mother, it's simple" and "All born of a mother and father", the banners were draped over dozens of bridges across the Seine river, other waterways and the city's ring road, le peripherique.

The stunt represented a last-ditch attempt by the anti-gay marriage movement to persuade parliamentarians to block a reform that has been championed by President Francois Hollande and looks certain to be enacted later this year.

Justice Minister Christiane Taubira told parliament as the debate kicked off that introducing gay marriage was "an act of equality". The government has allowed for the debate to run until Feb 10 with a vote due two days later.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the introduction of gay marriage would quickly come to be seen and accepted as a benchmark of social progress.

"Every time we have advanced equality in our country, there has been resistance, there have been fears and worries," Mr Ayrault told parliament. "But once these laws have been passed, they have come to be seen as real steps forward, as achievements of French society. So it will be with this law on marriage for all."

With opinion polls having consistently shown that a comfortable majority of the French support gay marriage, Mr Hollande could never have anticipated that a promise he made in his election manifesto last year would generate so much controversy.

A campaign orchestrated by the Catholic church and belatedly backed by the mainstream centre-right opposition steadily gathered momentum throughout the autumn and culminated in a giant protest in Paris two weeks ago.

Somewhere between 340,000 and 800,000 demonstrators flooded into the capital in a protest that was at least twice the size of a pro-gay marriage march staged on Sunday.

In September, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, claimed the government's plans to redefine the concept of marriage would open the door to incest and polygamy.

That prompted Mr Bertrand Delanoe, the mayor of Paris and one of France's few openly gay politicians, to say the elderly cleric must have "flipped his lid".

Similar withering criticism was directed at Mr Serge Dassault, a prominent industrialist who suggested the French would die out after being consumed by the same decadence that led to the fall of ancient Greece.

"We'll have a land of homos," Mr Dassault claimed. "And then in 10 years there will be no one left. It's stupid."

The movement in support of gay marriage has been less strident but did produce the iconic image of two women kissing in front of opponents of the planned legislation, snapped by AFP photographer Gerard Julien.

Throughout all the turmoil, Mr Hollande's support for the legislation has not wavered and his girlfriend, Ms Valerie Trierweiler, has revealed that the president will be attending the marriages of gay friends once the legislation is on the statute books.

That is expected to happen by the middle of this year, as the Socialists enjoy an outright majority in parliament and the proposed reform is also supported by the Greens, Communists and some centrists.

Parliamentary opponents of the legislation have introduced some 5,000 amendments but the guerrilla tactics are thought unlikely to significantly delay or dilute the legislation.

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