France to approve gay marriage but controversy will go on
A bill to make France the 14th country in the world to allow gay marriage is set to be approved by parliament on Tuesday but supporters will be forced to wait for the bitterly-contested reform to become law.
With the ruling Socialists enjoying a comfortable majority in the lower house National Assembly, there is no doubt the draft legislation, which will also accord gay couples the right to adopt children, will be approved in a vote on its second and final reading.
But the proposed reform will only become law when it is signed by President Francois Hollande and published in the Official Journal, a step opponents are hoping to delay by challenging the measure through France's constitutional council.
Even if that appeal is quickly dismissed, they are clinging to the hope that Hollande can be pressured into a decision not to sign the law into force.
That would not be unprecedented -- one of his predecessors, Jacques Chirac, shelved an unpopular employment law in 2006 in the face of public hostility.
But it looks unlikely.
Gay marriage was one of Hollande's election pledges and he has signalled his personal commitment to it by revealing plans to attend the weddings of gay friends once the legislation is on the statute book.
He is however struggling with the worst poll ratings of any president since the foundation of France's 5th Republic in 1958 and the opposition UMP appears to have succeeded in making the gay marriage issue a lightning conductor for broader dissatisfaction with the government.
"They must be blind as well as deaf if they think the opposition will collapse like a souffle the day after the vote," UMP lawmaker Jacques Myard warned.
The extent to which the issue has divided opinions in France has surprised many, and months of protests seem to have shifted the argument in the anti camp's favour.
In the immediate aftermath of Hollande's election, polls showed almost two thirds of voters supporting gay marriage and a narrower majority backing adoption by homosexual couples. But the latest surveys have pointed to the electorate being evenly split on gay marriage and a slight majority opposing adoption.
That shift has occurred in parallel with a campaign in which the Catholic Church initially played the leading role but, as it gained momentum, became increasingly dominated by the opposition parties.
Socialist politicians have accused the UMP of getting into bed with the far-right Front National (FN) over the issue and some protests in recent weeks have degenerated into violence amid allegations of extremist infiltration and reports of a spike in homophobic attacks.
A handful of prominent politicians have been threatened over their support for the bill, including National Assembly speaker Claude Bartolone, who revealed on Monday that he had been sent a letter containing gun powder demanding that he delay the vote.
Several hundred thousand protestors flooded Paris in March and the UMP is hoping for a similar mobilisation for another demonstration scheduled for May 26.
The debate has also been characterised by some colourful verbal exchanges.
After Cardinal Philippe Barbarin claimed the government's plans to redefine the concept of marriage would open the door to incest and polygamy, the openly gay mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, replied that the elderly cleric must have "flipped his lid".
Similar withering criticism was directed at industrialist Serge Dassault, who suggested the French would die out after being consumed by the same decadence that led to the fall of ancient Greece.
© 2013 AFP