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Last Updated: Friday, 4 June, 2004, 14:28 GMT 15:28 UK
Gay marriage divides France

By Alexandra Fouché
BBC News Online

Ever since a mayor in the south-west of France announced he would celebrate the country's first gay marriage in his town hall, a fierce debate has raged in the country over whether it was right.

The marriage, held on Saturday and condemned by the right-wing government, has opened rifts within political parties, sparked objection from Roman Catholic authorities and caused dissension within the town council in Begles.

Wedding banns
The men will appeal if the marriage is declared void
Sociologists, psychologists and politicians have all been chipping in with their opinion as to whether it was appropriate to allow gay people to marry - and whether gay marriage opened the path to parenting rights.

A similarly heated debate occurred five years ago when gays were legally allowed to enter a civil union called the Pacs, which gave more rights to cohabiting couples, regardless of their sex.

A recent poll suggested that 64% of French people supported same-sex weddings.

But Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said French law did not allow two people of the same sex to marry, and that Begles' mayor, Noel Mamere, was acting illegally.

People on the streets of Paris give their views on France's first gay marriage

Mayors violating the law can be suspended for a month, and can also be prosecuted for breaching their obligation to keep civil records, with a maximum fine of 1,500 euros.

It would also be possible for the cabinet to issue a decree revoking Mr Mamere's title of mayor, but such a move has only been rarely used in the past and in different circumstances.

Stephane Chapin, 33, and Bertrand Charpentier, 31, an auxiliary nurse and a shopworker respectively, have been described as a "normal couple" shunning the limelight and "a bit afraid" because of all the publicity.

They went into hiding until the wedding to escape the controversy surrounding them.

They are said to have wanted to enter the Pacs civil union when they found out Mr Mamere was ready to marry people of the same sex.

Marriage for them "represents something solid, a long-term commitment", AFP news agency reports.

GAY MARRIAGE IN EUROPE
Netherlands: Gay marriages allowed since 2001
Belgium: Gay marriages allowed since 2003
Sweden: Civil unions giving gay people the same rights as married couples, since 1994
The couple have said they will take their case to the European Court of Human Rights if the marriage is made void.

An assorted pack of journalists, politicians and gay right supporters - as well as the wedding guests - are expected to attend the ceremony on Saturday.

It is due to coincide with the Gay Pride march in nearby Bordeaux and it is thought some participants may head to Begles to help the two newly-weds celebrate.

It is also thought representatives of a group called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of drag queens who normally bless the opening of Gay Pride parades, will attend especially.

Mr Mamere, a former television presenter known for his strong social convictions, is a leading figure in the opposition Green Party and was its presidential candidate two years ago.

Some have accused him of being self-serving by pulling this political stunt. But he says he is only applying measures demanded by his party in a recent motion, calling for the promotion of equality for all, which would include same-sex marriages.

He has since the announcement received threats and letters of complaints, and is receiving protection.

'Pointless'

Earlier this year, President Jacques Chirac backed his prime minister in opposing gay weddings, and instead proposed further strengthening the Pacs.

On Thursday, Justice Minister Dominique Perben reiterated that the mayor of Begles could face "penalties of a criminal or civil nature and administrative penalties, in particular his suspension as mayor".

"The rule of the constitutional state must be respected by those who represent the authority of the state," the minister added.

Members of the ruling conservatives, a senior Roman Catholic church leader and some prominent Socialists have said children needed a mother and a father and argue the issue was too serious and wide-reaching to be discussed in a hurry.

Even Begles' local councillors are divided, with one at one stage proposing that a pink carp and a green rabbit be married in an "equally pointless" ceremony.




SEE ALSO:
French move to ban gay marriage
27 May 04 |  Europe
Oregon gives boost to gay couples
21 Apr 04 |  Americas
Spain 'to approve gay marriages'
19 Mar 04 |  Business
Brazilian go-ahead for gay unions
05 Mar 04 |  Americas
Mayor charged over gay weddings
03 Mar 04 |  Americas


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