BRUSSELS, Belgium — This was one day when it really wasn't “Gay Paree.”
On Sunday, the center of Paris was packed with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators converging on the Eiffel Tower to protest government plans to grant marriage and adoption rights to gay couples.
Police put the numbers at 350,000. Organizers said there were at least 800,000.
"This is a peaceful insurrection by the people of France," said Bruno Gollnisch, a senior member of the far-right National Front, who joined the protest.
Gollnisch denounced the Socialist government's "marriage for all" proposals as an "infamous bill" that "deals a fresh blow to the cultural identity of our civilization."
Protest organizers insist the movement is not homophobic and stress that those joining the march include Catholics and Muslims, politicians from the left and right and several homosexuals who agree that the bill is an attack on the family.
But although representatives say their movement has no broader political ambitions, the debate has highlighted rifts running deep in French society and is providing a focus for opposition to Socialist President Francois Hollande.
A parliamentary debate on the issue degenerated Tuesday as conservative members chanted "referendum, referendum," shouting down Socialist speakers with their calls to put the issue to a national vote.
"Is this how you defend democracy?" Socialist lawmaker Bruno Le Roux bellowed above the chants. "Assume your responsibilities and stop acting like children."
France is catching up to a number of European nations in granting same-sex marriage rights. Since the Netherlands became the first country to legalize gay marriage in 2001, Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden have followed suit.
Finland, Luxembourg and Britain also have legislative bills pending before parliament. In Britain, the House of Commons is due to vote in the next few weeks on legislation supported by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.
The bill has triggered criticism from within the Conservative Party and from church groups — 1,000 Catholic priests signed a letter last weekend claiming it would lead to discrimination against Christians. The debate in Britain has generally been low-key with little of the inflamed passions seen in France.
Gay rights activist Joel Le Deroff says the contrast in the British and French reaction is partly because French law has to make a big jump to give homosexuals the rights enjoyed by straight couples on issues such as adoption and parenting. In Britain, he says, civil union laws already give gays 99 percent of the rights given to heterosexual couples.
Beyond that, Le Deroff says, gay marriage has revived divisions over the role of the church in France's officially secular state that have set conservative and progressives at odds since the days of the guillotine.
"Each time we have a debate over these sorts of questions, it's a chance to replay symbolically the French Revolution," says Le Deroff, a senior policy officer at ILGA, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.
"We have a very well-defined separation between the church and the state, but it's always remains a source of tension, every time it comes you can expect massive demonstrations from both sides."
Despite the size of Sunday's demonstration and the high emotions, the French government says it is going ahead with the bill. A final vote in parliament is expected in June.
Polls show a significant majority of the French support same-sex marriage. A survey published Saturday by the Nouvel Observateur news magazine said 56 percent were in favor and just 39 percent opposed. However the poll also showed declining support for adoption by gay couples: 45 percent in favor and 50 percent against.
The campaign against the bill has focused on adoption, surrogacy and other parenthood issues. Organizers insist they are not against gay rights, but in favor of the the rights of children to have both a mother and father.
"This 'marriage for all' will write into our law a fundamental discrimination between human beings: those that are born from a father and a mother and those that under the law are 'born' to two fathers or two mothers," campaigners said in message to Hollande published on Sunday. "President, do you want be the one who abolishes children's birthright to equality?"
Gay rights activists however say there is widespread homophobia behind the anti-gay marriage campaign.
"They have a very clever communication policy," Le Deroff acknowledges. "They say they are not homophobic, but if you advocate that black people and white people should have different rights and not be equal you are racist. If you advocate that men and women should not have the same rights you are discriminating and if you think that gay people and heterosexual people should not have the same rights, you are a homophobe."