France’s first official gay wedding was to take place yesterday in the southern city of Montpellier amid tight security and fears of protests after months of opposition that saw tens of thousands take to the streets.
Vincent Autin, 40, and Bruno Boileau, 30, were to exchange vows at Montpellier City Hall yesterday afternoon in the presence of hundreds of guests, including Socialist government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.
Vallaud-Belkacem said she was attending the ceremony as a private citizen and not a state representative, after the government backed away from sending officials fearing it would be accused of politicizing the event.
“I have only invited friends and family. We didn’t want to turn our marriage into a celebrity event,” Autin said.
Though officially a secular republic, France is overwhelmingly Catholic, and the issue of gay adoption and marriage — a key campaign pledge of French President Francois Hollande — has sparked a deeply divisive debate.
On Sunday, at least 150,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Paris in the latest in a series of protests to denounce the new law, which authorizes gay marriage and adoptions by same-sex couples.
The largely peaceful gathering later turned violent as riot police battled hundreds of protesters.
Opponents vowed to protest at the marriage in Montpellier as well and authorities have called in up to 100 police, with another 80 in reserve, to provide security.
“It is an exceptional event and we want everything to go as smoothly as possible,” Frederic Loiseau of the local prefect’s office said.
International media have been converging on Montpellier — known as the “French San Francisco” for its gay-friendly reputation — and Montpellier Mayor Helene Mandroux, who was to preside over the ceremony, said she was surprised by the interest.
“We are the 14th country to recognize gay marriage,” she said. “If there are so many journalists, maybe it is because they were surprised by the reaction of opponents. They were astonished that there could be such violence in the country of human rights.”
She said she would give a speech during the ceremony addressing the fact that “for weeks there has been a phenomenon of intolerance” in France.
Opposition to the measure started as a grassroots campaign backed by the influential Roman Catholic Church. The right-wing opposition then jumped into the fray and the movement ballooned.
Despite the widespread opposition, a survey published on Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche said nearly three-quarters of the French were tired of the protests and thought they should stop.