For a moment, the wedding on Wednesday felt like the most traditional of occasions, as Nat King Cole’s classic song “Love Was Made for Me and You” blared out of the speakers, and an ecstatic couple made their way down the aisle. But there was one difference: the couple were both men.
France’s first gay marriage, officiated in the town hall of Montpellier in front of hundreds of people, was as much the culmination of a bitter political battle as the fruits of a great love. That much was clear as Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau sat listening hand in hand to the speech of Montpellier Mayor Hélène Mandroux, who stood before a portrait of President François Hollande and told them, moments before they took their vows, “Our society cannot have any prejudices.” In a hall jammed with politicians, photographers and television crews, Mandroux called the wedding, broadcast live on French networks, “a symbol for France,” and said “the very fact that marriage has been opened to everybody has triggered a wave of hatred and dissent.”
That is an understatement. For months Paris streets have been racked with violent clashes that have drawn enraged crowds onto the streets to protest against a central policy of Hollande’s Socialist Party, which vowed in its election campaign a year ago to legalize gay marriage. At times the demonstrations have been equal in size and ferocity to the riots during the mid-2000s over pension and labor reforms. Even after the French Senate passed the bill legalizing gay marriage two weeks ago, the protests did not let up. On Monday, hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the esplanade in front of the city’s Invalides dome, clashing with riot police, who were posted around Paris neighborhoods in bulletproof vests and helmets, as they have been numerous times during the past several months.
As Autin and Boileau were taking their vows on Wednesday, Bruno Vercken, a member of the political board of the right-wing Christian Democratic Party, was telling France 24 Television that the battle was not over, despite the hard-won rights of gay couples. The issue, he says, would continue to focus on stopping gay couples from procreating. “People will not stop protesting,” Vercken said. “Our main concern is the defense of children.”
During months of fierce debates on the floor of France’s National Assembly and on the streets, the schism among French voters has exploded around the issue of nuclear families, rather than around homosexuality itself. While the law now allows gay couples to adopt children, it stops short of permitting them to have biological children through assisted reproduction — an issue that in general remains highly contentious, even for heterosexual couples, in this largely Catholic country. Commercial egg donation, for example, remains illegal. “We need a father and a mother,” Vercken said on television, echoing the major argument that has been pushed for months by gay-marriage protesters. “We all agree that a human being is born from a man and a woman.”
The intensity of gay-marriage protests has surprised many, perhaps because France has a fairly progressive attitude toward marriage and relationships. Domestic partnerships are widespread, and it is relatively common to meet long-term nuclear families with unmarried parents. Hollande himself never married his former partner Ségolène Royal, with whom he had four children, and is not married to his current love, Valérie Trierweiler, who is officially known as France’s First Lady. And Bertrand Delanoë, who has been mayor of Paris since 2001, is openly gay, a fact that is accepted by most Parisians without question.
For Hollande, his success in making gay marriage legal has been politically crucial. It is arguably the most significant legal shift in French society since the abolition of the death penalty in 1981. In addition, it is about the only definable victory Hollande can claim from his first year in office, during which his poll ratings have sunk to below 25%.
But the bitter fractiousness over gay parenting shows little signs of easing. “The outlook of French public opinion has evolved a lot,” Jérôme Fourquet, director of opinion at the French polling agency Ifop, told TIME on Wednesday. The organization, which has surveyed thousands of French citizens on gay marriage during the past months, found that voters increasingly grew accustomed to the idea as the months of political debate wore on; today, about two-thirds of those polled said they were in favor of gay marriage.
The opposition to gay parenting remains strong, however. Latest polls taken last week found between 45% and 50% oppose adoption for gay parents, and the figures tend to skew higher when assisted reproduction is discussed. But the greatest division is generational. In a recent Ifop poll, two-thirds of those identifying themselves as grandparents opposed gay parenting, a sharp difference from younger French voters. That suggests that as years go on the opposition to allowing gay couples to have children will shrink. “The great majority of youth are in favor of gay parents,” Fourquet said. “The older generation is much more attached to the traditional model of the family.” Legal or not, France’s first married gay couple made clear their intentions yesterday. “We hope to have a family at some point, that is for sure,” Boileau told reporters before the wedding. “That is something that will come next.”