French lawmakers on Tuesday extended marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples, making France the 14th country in the world to legalise gay marriage. The 331 to 225 vote was preceded by months of bitter –and sometimes violent– exchanges on the subject in parliament and in the streets.
The National Assembly first passed the so-called “Marriage for All” law in February. It had to give it a second and final reading on Tuesday, after the upper-house Senate approved the same bill with some amendments on April 12.
The landmark legislation was greeted by wild cheering from some and boos by others gathered outside the National Assembly. Opponents were scheduled to converge outside the building to protest the reform at 7pm, as they have been doing for the past several days.
“I hope people across the country will celebrate this moment,” said Martin Gaillard, a 31-year-old advocate of gay marriage, who admitted feeling stressed during the past weeks because of all the attention garnered by the law’s detractors.
“This remains a joyous day,” added Gaillard, whose “Projet Entourage LGBT” has sought to build support for gay marriage on the Internet for over two years.
He remembered that gay marriage had little political traction at the start of his project, but then became a hot topic of the 2012 presidential campaign. President François Hollande came to power last May promising to legalise marriage and adoption for same-sex couples.
Recent opinion polls show that a majority -between 53% and 58%- of people in France support gay marriage.
According to Yves-Marie Cann, of the French polling firm CSA, those figures have remained constant throughout months of controversy. However, he noted that the number of people against adoption by same-sex couples has risen in recent months, with 56% now opposed to the measure.
The months-long legislative process was closely followed by supporters and opponents of the bill, who staged massive rallies in Paris and around the country to either defend or try to defeat the historic bill.
The anti-gay marriage camp –a motley mix that includes traditional Catholic families, some members of the opposition UMP party and far-right groups– organised some of the largest marches seen in France in recent years.
CSA’s Cann said the issue had revealed a sharp ideological divide in French society, with more than 72% of right-wing sympathisers saying they were against the law.
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As the bill neared a final vote, some opponents adopted a hardline approach, leading to violent confrontations with police on Paris’s iconic Champs Elysées in late March.
Meanwhile, rights groups said they had documented a significant rise in attacks targeting gays and LGBT-friendly businesses, and accused the so-called peaceful protests of trivialising hateful homophobic speech. On the eve of the vote, National Assembly president Claude Bartolone received a letter filled with gunpowder warning him to delay it.
Frustrations also spilled over inside parliament, where quarrelling MP’s allegedly threw punches and had to be separated by security last week.
An evolving process
Opponents pledged to keep fighting the marriage reform despite its passing. Just hours before the vote, opposition MP Henri Guaino told France Inter radio that he would continue joining protests until Hollande called a referendum on the issue.
Guaino nevertheless admitted that it would be very difficult to reverse the law once it went into effect and after same-sex couples began to wed.
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Other lawmakers said they would immediately request that the law be scrutinised by France’s Constitutional Council, while others said they would repeal it as soon as conservatives regained a majority in parliament. Leaders of the anti-gay marriage marches announced they would consider running in mayoral elections next year.
Gaillard, the gay-marriage activist, said the legislative victory was somewhat anticlimactic. “I feel like this is part of an evolving process; this is clearly the direction France needs to move in. The impression I have is that we are finally catching up.”
France is now the ninth European country to legalise gay marriage, joining Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Portugal, as well as neighbouring Belgium and Spain.
Questioned as to what would become of Projet Entourage LGBT –now that gay marriage was no longer an idea but a reality– Gaillard said his group was considering turning its attention to championing access to in vitro fertilisation for same-sex couples or supporting teen victims of homophobia. For now, he said he was only sure he would be catching up on some hard-earned rest.