February 4, 2013 5:32 pm

Same-sex marriage dominates French agenda

Jean-Francois Cope, the head of France's right-wing UMP opposition, shakes hands as he arrives to give a speech during a meeting with militants on January 28, 2013 in Villeurbanne near Lyon.©AFP

Jean-Francois Cope vehemently opposes same-sex marriage in France

France is at war in Mali, and at home unemployment is rising fast, but the issue dominating the nation’s parliament is a ferocious debate over the Socialist government’s proposal to legalise same-sex marriage.

An unprecedented 30-hour session in the National Assembly over the weekend ran until breakfast time on Monday, only to be resumed a few hours later as the mainstream centre-right opposition UMP party kept up a barrage of arguments against the measure.

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The debate, which started last Tuesday, is set to continue for another week.

President François Hollande made “marriage for all”, as his government has dubbed it, an important campaign promise in his election victory over the UMP’s Nicolas Sarkozy last year. Opinion polls show continued majority support for the measure.

But the UMP, despite some dissent within its ranks, has joined Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in fighting the legislation, which includes the right to adopt.

In contrast to David Cameron, the British Conservative prime minister who has defied opposition within his party ranks in proposing a similar law, Jean-François Copé, the new leader of the UMP, has led the charge against gay marriage.

The issue has prompted huge public demonstrations, with police estimating 340,000 people joined a rally in Paris against the law last month. A pro-legislation march two weeks later was smaller, but still drew an estimated 125,000.

Mr Hollande had earlier shown some signs of wavering on the issue. He told a meeting of mayors, who conduct marriage ceremonies, that they could refuse individually on grounds of conscience to conduct same-sex unions. He also excluded from the legislation a proposal to extend the right to state-backed fertility treatment to lesbian couples – it is to be introduced later in the year under separate legislation.

Gérard Collomb, the Socialist mayor of Lyon, last week joined those, including UMP leaders, urging the government to concentrate on the fight against unemployment, rather than divisive social reforms.

But the issue has become a useful rallying point for Mr Hollande and the government among its own supporters on the left, many of whom have been uncomfortable with Mr Hollande’s adoption of tough budget policies (despite promises to eschew austerity) and moves to cut business costs and soften labour laws.

Socialist deputies worked through the night at the weekend to counter the UMP-led opposition, both sides exchanging fire as much via Twitter as across the assembly floor. Christiane Taubira, the justice minister, huddled under shawls and a coat sipping tea to fend off the night-time chill in the chamber.

Only one of the 13 articles in the bill had been completed by the end of the special weekend session, with some 3,200 opposition amendments out of more than 5,000 tabled still to be dealt with.

The first article passed, thanks to a majority sustained through the marathon sitting by the Socialist party and its allies, was the core measure to legalise marriage between same sex couples. Like the UK and Germany, France currently allows a civil union but not full marriage rights.

But the opposition has dug in over the other main measure – granting the right to same-sex couples to adopt. One long procedural wrangle was over a provision for a child to take both its same-sex parents’ family names in alphabetical order in cases where there was disagreement over surnames: at present, the father’s name is taken.

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