Weddings for gays divide France

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Plans by a green politician to conduct France's first gay marriage have riven the French left, causing public rows between long-time friends and allies and even within the country's highest-profile power couple.

The Socialist former prime minister Lionel Jospin ended a long silence on the internal affairs of the Parti Socialiste last week by attacking its decision to support the principle of same-sex marriages. His criticism amounted to an attack on the policies of François Hollande, his one-time protégé and successor as Socialist leader.

Mr Hollande's problems do not end there. His support for gay marriages has also been publicly repudiated by one of the rising stars of his party, Ségolène Royal, the former education minister - who is also his partner of 25 years and mother of their four children. They have never publicly disagreed before. But she, like many other leading Socialist figures, believes that the decision to support gay marriages is both morally dubious and politically ill-timed.

"The Socialist Party has rebuilt its credibility on its capacity to provide solutions on the big issues," said Ms Royal. "On delicate issues we should assert a right not to have a simple answer to everything."

In other words, just when the Socialists had re-emerged as a credible future party of government, they have been distracted by what many activists - and even many homosexual activists - see as a peripheral problem. Although same-sex marriages have become a hot political question in the US, they have not been a burning issue in France, which has allowed "civil pacts" between homosexual couples since 1998.

The pace has been forced by one of the leaders of the French Green Party (Les Verts), who insists that gay marriage is a question of fundamental human rights. Noel Mamère, a Green deputy, the Green candidate at the last presidential election in 2002 and Mayor of the small town of Bègles, near Bordeaux, plans to use his mayoral powers to conduct France's first gay marriage on 5 June, just when the country is remembering the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

The government has declared the marriage to be void in advance, on the grounds that the French civil code specifies weddings can only occur between men and women. The government has formally threatened to punish Mr Mamère if he goes ahead with the wedding (without pointing out that he faces a maximum fine of €4.25, or about £3).

Mr Mamère, a former TV presenter given to flamboyant acts of self-publicity, insists that the civil code does not limit marriages to couples of different sexes. "This is part of my struggle for equal rights in this country," he said. His initiative generated a debate on same-sex marriages within the Parti Socialiste, the main party of opposition.

Mr Jospin, who retired as Socialist leader after his defeat at the presidential election two years ago, chose this moment to make an unexpected return to the domestic political scene. In an opinion article in the Journal du Dimanche, he accused some activists on the left of trying to make gay marriages into a litmus test of the bien-pensant, or politically correct.

Marriage exists, first and foremost, to protect children, he said. "Children are not a commodity, which can be procured by a couple, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. A child is a person born from a union - of whatever kind - between a man and a woman."