France's Socialist government Wednesday approved a draft law to authorise gay marriage and adoption despite fierce opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and the right-wing opposition.
President Francois Hollande, who made the issue a key part of his electoral platform, told a cabinet meeting the move was "not only a step forward for some but for all of society," government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said.
The proposed legislation "resolutely takes into account the greater interest of the child," he said, Vallaud-Belkacem added.
"This is an important step towards the equality of rights," said Minister of Family Affairs Dominique Bertinnoti.
Bertinnoti rejected criticism that the move would "destroy" the family, saying: "On the contrary it is a legal protection."
It now has to be voted through parliament before becoming law: Hollande has promised that it will be on the statute books by mid-2013.
Some in the government also want the final law to include state funding for artificial insemination for gay couples.
"This is a great advance and very important for the legal protection of gay families," said Stephanie, a 41-year-old member of an association of gay and lesbian parents.
The draft law, a liberal cornerstone of the election manifesto that brought Hollande to power in May has come under fire in a country that is officially secular but predominantly Catholic.
Muslim, Protestant and Jewish organisations have also expressed opposition to the project.
Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, who has led opposition to the project, told a mass in the southern pilgrimage town of Lourdes last weekend that children needed both a father and a mother to build their identities.
"When we defend the right of children to build their personality with reference to the man and the woman who gave them life, we are not defending a particular position," he said.
A number of European nations allow gay marriage and adoption, but in France only married couples and not civil union partners can adopt.
Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden currently allow gay adoption.
Polls suggest that up to two-thirds of French voters back homosexuals' right to marry, but there is less support on allowing them to adopt.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, has called for a popular vote on gay marriage and adoption.
Jean-Francois Cope, one of two candidates to succeed former president Nicolas Sarkozy as the head of the conservative UMP party, has urged the government to postpone the draft bill saying it was "incredibly badly prepared.
"It is not just about homosexual marriage, it is about a complete reorganisation, deconstruction of the right of the family, with questions surrounding lineage, the removal of the reference to father and mother in the text," Cope said.
Some conservative and far-right politicians have also called for mass protests to try and force the government to back down. Hundreds of French mayors or deputy mayors have signed a petition opposing the government's plans.
Pope Benedict XVI last month urged French bishops to oppose the bill and defend marriage as the "foundation of social life".
The draft legislation will include a provision for married gay couples to adopt children but the right will not be immediately extended to unmarried homosexuals, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said last month.
That question and the issue of gay couples' access to medically assisted conception will be addressed in secondary legislation at a later date.