France's First Gay Marriage: Vincent and Bruno Start the Revolution

By in Paris

Photo Gallery: First Gay Marriage Makes History in France Photos
AFP

The French public is deeply divided over the recent legalization of same-sex marriage, but that won't stop couples in love from exercising their rights. Amid the emotional debate, the country's first gay marriage will make history on Wednesday in Montpellier.

When France's first gay marriage takes place on Wednesday evening, the celebration will be in full accordance with the country's rules and rites, complete with a representative of the law dressed in a blue and white sash, music and confetti. "It will be a wedding like any other," says Montpellier Mayor Hélène Mandroux. "With the same respect, the same serenity, the same dignity."

It will also be historic -- both on a personal level for 40-year-old Vincent Autin and his 30-year-old fiancé, Bruno Boileau, who say the ceremony is a "long-awaited moment." But also as the beginning of a small revolution that has become exceedingly controversial in France.

Autin and Boileau's wedding will be the first gay marriage since the French parliament passed its "Marriage for All" legislation in late April. The reform, which grants same-sex couples the right to marry and adopt children, has been celebrated by gay and lesbian organizations as a victory. Opponents see it as nothing less than the downfall of social values and conventions.

Taken by Surprise

For weeks, an alliance of conservative citizens, radical nationalists and dogmatic Catholics have been up in arms over the bill, a campaign promise by Socialist President François Hollande, staging protests on the streets and late-night marathon debates in parliament. Not even the law's passage could ease the uproar. Over the weekend, a protest attended by several hundred thousand people in Paris ended in clashes between right-wing extremist groups associated with the so-called "French Spring" movement.

On some recent weekends, up to half a million demonstrators have taken part in protests -- a level of resistance that took the government in Paris by surprise. Polls conducted prior to the new law had shown that a majority of French voters would tolerate same-sex marriage. But then anti-Hollande activists and outraged conservative voters from the middle class began mobilizing online to organize protests against what they saw as an attack on their way of life.

Perhaps it should have come as less of a surprise, though. In the country where human rights were born, homosexuality was classified as "social scourge" and "mental illness" until 1981, when that particular form of discrimination ended under then-President François Mitterrand. But same-sex marriage remained unthinkable, although many activists in the gay and lesbian communities and in the women's movement preferred it that way. As pioneers of sexual freedom, they saw marriage as an outdated institution.

A Public Statement

Same-sex marriage only became an issue with the 1999 "civil solidarity act," known as PACS, which legalized a form of civil union between two adults that carries fewer rights and responsibilities than marriage. It is available to both same- and opposite-sex partnerships. Since then, partnerships that resemble marriage have become commonplace in France. Films about lesbian love -- such as "Blue Is the Warmest Color," which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival this week -- no longer spark protests. And even the popular soap opera "Plus belle la Vie" has taken on the once-sensitive topic.

Thus, after a number of failed attempts to legalize same-sex marriage, Hollande decided to make it a campaign promise ahead of his election last May. The bill was signed into law on May 18. The very same day, Autin and Boileau scheduled their wedding, making their life commitment into an international media spectacle. Some 140 journalists have registered at the Montpellier city hall, among them reporters from Japan, China, Russia and the US. French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem also announced that the minister for women's rights will attend in a "private capacity," as discussed with Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

The couple themselves are taking a relaxed approach to the kerfuffle around their big day. Autin, a gay and lesbian rights activist and member of the LGBT organization InterPride, views his marriage as a public statement. "We haven't forgotten that there are still countries in which homosexuality is punished by prison," he says.

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