REUTERS - France’s new Socialist government is to legalise same-sex marriage next year, a junior minister said on Friday, reflecting a shift in public attitudes in the majority Catholic nation.
President Francois Hollande, who took office last month, had pledged to legalise gay marriage and adoption during his election campaign but had given no timeframe.
Since Hollande’s Socialists won an absolute majority in parliamentary elections two weeks ago, the conservative UMP party, which had opposed the measure under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, can do little to stop it.
"Within a year, people of the same sex will be able to marry and adopt children together," Dominique Bertinotti, junior minister for families, told the daily Le Parisien. "They will have the same rights and duties as any married couple."
A law granting full marriage status to gay couples would bring France, which currently provides only for same-sex civil unions, into line with fellow EU members Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden.
It would also mark a profound change in French society, where more than two-thirds of people still describe themselves as Roman Catholic, according to a 2010 survey by pollster Ifop.
However, fewer and fewer of them adhere to strict Roman Catholic teachings on sexual issues or back the Vatican’s condemnation of homosexuality. Church attendance has collapsed.
As recently as 2006, surveys indicated that most French were opposed to changing the definition of marriage, but now more than 60 percent support the idea, the pollster BVA said. A majority also favour allowing gay couples to adopt children.
Nevertheless, gay rights advocates say homosexuality remains taboo in many areas of public life. Media tend to use euphemisms such as "long-term bachelor" to hint that someone is gay.
"Today, it’s still very difficult to put a name on things, as if saying in public that someone was homosexual was to violate a taboo, " a group of gay professionals wrote in an opinion piece in the newspaper Le Monde on Friday, the eve of a Gay Pride march in Paris.
A gay marriage law would boost Hollande’s credentials as an agent of social change in the tradition of late Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, who appointed France’s first female prime minister and scrapped the death penalty.
Hollande fathered four children out of wedlock with his former partner, fellow Socialist Segolene Royal.
A debate on gay rights might also draw some attention away from the economic woes weighing on his popularity.
Still, there is certain to be opposition from conservatives and practising Catholics.
"We are convinced that young people’s development requires the presence of a mother and a father," said Thierry Vidor, head of the Familles de France umbrella group, which represents some 70,000 families, and campaigns for traditional family rights.
"We will take action to try to show that this measure is ultimately dangerous for society."