The Mayor of Paris is openly gay. Personalities such as the long-time lover of late fashion guru Yves Saint Laurent play high-profile roles in French society. French gay rights groups are as vocal as they come. But the country whose motto is Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité hasn't given the love and commitment of same-sex couples equal legal standing to that of heterosexuals.
An ongoing debate over the issue is gathering steam. A trigger point came on Friday when the Constitutional Court ruled that laws banning gay marriage do not violate the constitution. They said any change was for parliament to decide.
Supporters of same-sex marriage say France is behind the curve of societal change, and playing catch-up with other European nations that have already legalised it. Same-sex couples in France can form civil unions, but these do not confer inheritance rights or joint custody of goods, among other things.
In its decision, the council noted that lawmakers had agreed that the "difference in situations of same-sex couples and couples made up of a man and a woman can justify a difference in treatment concerning family rights."
The ruling puts the issue at the doorstep of the unpopular President Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of presidential and legislative elections next year. A poll released last week shows growing public support for the idea of gay marriage – and the left-wing opposition immediately pounced.
The appeal to the council was brought by Corinne Cestino and Sophie Hasslauer, who have lived together for 15 years, have four children, and want the right to marry. They challenged the constitutionality of the civil code's stipulation that marriage must be between a man and a woman. Ms Cestino, speaking on France-Info radio, acknowledged the ruling was "a big disappointment". "French society is ready [for gay marriage]," she said. "The block rests with the politicians."
Polls suggest she is right. A recent one by Canal Plus TV found 58 per cent of respondents believed gays should be able to marry – a double-digit percentage point increase from a poll five years ago – while 35 per cent believe they should not.
The Communist Party criticised the ruling, saying: "France has retained its dunce's cap over the right for people of the same sex to marry, when many other European countries remedied this inequality a long time ago." Some countered that legal tradition in France was being upheld. "We can only hail this decision, which respects our political-judicial tradition," said Christine Boutin, head of the small Christian-Democratic Party. "The right to marry for homosexual couples would only be the first step before adoption follows."
Gay rights groups say "le Coming-Out" is making progress, crediting improving media coverage and role models such as Mayor Bertrand Delanoë of Paris, who came out publicly years ago. Pierre Bergé, the long-time partner of Yves Saint Laurent, cultivates a high profile as a philanthropist and recently became a co-owner of the top-drawer daily Le Monde.
But coming out is always "a personal decision," said Stéphane Corbin, a spokesman for the advocacy group Fédération LGBT. Even Ms Boutin, long a bête noire for gay rights groups, has "eased up" on her position with regard to homosexuality over the years, Mr Corbin said. Gone are the days during the social upheaval of 1968, when gays in France opposed marriage as a "bourgeois" institution – now they simply want to enjoy the same rights as everybody else, he said.