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Same-sex marriage reveals cracks in Sarkozy party

French lawmakers are for the first time debating a bill to legalise homosexual marriage. Though the bill is expected to fail, the controversial issue could yet haunt the ruling UMP party in next year's presidential race.


France’s National Assembly debated for its first time the issue of homosexual marriages on Thursday. A vote next week is expected to shoot down a move to legalise same-sex weddings, but the opposition Socialist Party is threatening to turn the issue into a major campaign topic during next year’s presidential race.

The bill to legalise marriage for homosexual couples in France was introduced by Patrick Bloche, a Socialist member of parliament for Paris, after France’s constitutional court ruled in January that the existing ban on gay marriages was not unconstitutional. While the political left has unanimously rallied behind the bill, the debate in parliament has also helped highlight some divisions in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party.

UMP member Claude Bodin denounced a bill that he said was meant to stir controversy before the 2012 presidential election. He called Bloche’s text a “response to communitarian demands” and added that homosexuality was a “private issue, which cannot become a standard like any other".

But breaking with the majority of their party, a handful of UMP members spoke in favour of the law and said they would vote for it. Franck Reister was cheered by the opposition when he asked: “To offer two persons who love each other the opportunity to unite under the same contract, whatever their sexual orientation, is this not in accordance with our republican tradition?”

Following Europe

Again taking the lead in the debate, the Socialists' Patrick Bloche spoke up on Thursday to compare France’s stance on homosexual marriage with that of neighbouring European countries. “Have you noticed that these countries, some of which are more marked by religion than our own, have been shaken to their cores?... it’s time to take another step on the road towards equality,” Bloche said.

In Europe, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Portugal and Iceland have legalised same-sex marriages. Since 1999 France, like Britain and Germany, has legally recognised civil partnerships, known as the “pacs” to the French. Last year France saw 203,882 of these civil unions, but less than five percent of them involved homosexual couples.

Activists say the pacs does not afford gay and lesbian households the same rights as marriage. “The protection afforded under the pacs - in terms of the right to reside in a country or custody over children - is not the same as marriage,” explained Gilles Bon-Maury, president of the advocacy group HES (Homosexuality and Socialism).

Bon-Maury told FRANCE 24 that besides the motivation to seek legal equality, his group championed same-sex marriage because its adoption would offer a symbolic message to people who discriminate against homosexuals in “the workplace, school or even in the streets”.

On the campaign trail

The UMP will be hoping that the controversial debate dies out along with the bill on Tuesday, but the issue is likely to resurface and be played up by the opposition in the months ahead. Bon-Maury said he hoped it would become one of the key issues of the looming presidential campaign.

François Hollande, the frontrunner in forthcoming Socialist primaries, wrote on his blog yesterday that he supported opening marriage to homosexual couples. The former Socialist Party leader struck a patriotic tone by saying it was a matter of “liberty” and “equality”.

Supporting gay marriage has become a relatively safe bet for opposition candidates. According to surveys published by French pollsters TNS Sofres and BVA this year, between 58 and 59 percent of French people support allowing same-sex couples to marry.

Centrist Jean-Louis Borloo, a former UMP member who is now threatening to challenge President Sarkozy’s bid for re-election, has also come out in favour of homosexual marriages. “It is important to address this issue peacefully, respecting the beliefs and opinions of everyone,” Borloo said on Thursday.

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