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Divisions exposed as France prepares to say 'I do' to gay marriage.
PARIS, France — It's Paris under the spring sunshine. Couples stroll hand-in-hand, steal kisses while window shopping past chic boutiques, or whisper sweet-nothings over marble-topped tables at a sidewalk cafe.
These are familiar cliches of the romantic French capital, except that along the Rue des Archives, the couples in question are likely to be same-sex.
This is the Marais neighborhood, a favorite hangout of gay Parisians and a scene of celebration on April 23 when lawmakers in the Assemblee nationale, just down the Seine river, voted 331 to 225 to write same-sex marriage into law.
That celebration, however, was tinged with concern.
The Socialist government's bill to make France the world's 14th country to legalize gay marriage has unleashed a wave of opposition that has mobilized mass demonstrations and revealed a current of homophobia running deep and wide through French society.
"France has generally evolved positively in its attitudes to homosexuality, to the point that many people thought homophobia no longer exists. Well, now we know that it's still there," said Elisabeth Ronzier, head of the campaign group SOS Homophobie.
Her organization, which campaigns against violence and discrimination, has seen calls to its helpline increase three-fold this year, Ronzier told GlobalPost.
While gay couples are lining up to marry, opponents have launched a legal challenge at the Constitutional Court to block the legislation. A "national demonstration day" in favor of the "rights of children to have a mother and a father" has been called for May 26.
Leading organizers deny charges of homophobia and have sought to distance themselves from more hardline anti-gay protesters. They disowned the designers of a poster for the May 26 event which portrayed Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is black, as an enraged gorilla.
Nevertheless, grass-roots supporters of the movement frequently use homophobic language and gay-rights groups report a rise in violent attacks since the protests against same-sex marriage began.
"Homophobia is growing in France," said Adrian Lambert, a barman at Cox, a renowned gay bar on Rue des Archives.
"Society is more closed than other countries," he said, while pouring beers. "If you look at Spain or the Netherlands, France is more backward. Plus, there is this extremist tendency we always have to watch out for."
Two of Cox's regular customers were attacked and badly beaten last month after spending an evening in the neighborhood, Lambert says.
Opinion surveys have consistently shown a majority supporting the same-sex marriage bill. A poll published May 2 showed 53 percent backing the "marriage for all" law, which grants marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples. Sixty-seven percent want an end to the demonstrations against the law.
Voters in Paris elected a gay man, Bertrand Delanoe, as their mayor in 2001 and sent him back to city hall in 2008.
Although derided by some as a "gay ghetto," the historic streets and alleys of the Marais appear to be a model of openness.
The district was previously better-known as a Jewish neighborhood — and its gay bars co-exist alongside falafel joints and delis selling knish and poppyseed strudel. Recently, it's taken off as a trendy shopping area, its stores and cafes becoming a popular tourist draw.
Despite such apparent tolerance, the gay marriage bill has attracted opposition on a scale and intensity unseen in France's European neighbors.
The Netherlands became the first European country to legalize gay-marriage in 2001, followed by Belgium two years later. In Spain, although there was opposition supported by the Catholic Church, same-sex marriage was legalized in 2005, with polls showing support from 62 percent of the population. Portugal followed suit in 2010.
Britain is currently introducing similar legislation. Bishops have written to newspapers to complain, but the country has seen no dissent approaching the French scale.
Opposition in France has united conservative, Catholic and far-right groups together with representatives of the country's Islamic community. The movement's unlikely figurehead is a comedien called Frigide Barjot, and who once entertained at a gay club called the Banana Cafe and recorded songs such as "Fais-moi l'amour avec two doigts" ("Make love to me with two fingers").
Barjot claimed to have brought a million to the streets for a demonstration in Paris back in January and is hoping for similar numbers this month. More legal challenges are planned even after the bill is signed into law.
Banners warning of the risks to French children posed by gay marriage and adoption rights have been strung along French highways, pamphlets carrying a similar message abound. Scuffles broke out among lawmakers during the parliamentary debate.
Barjot has denounced the more radical elements in the movement. Ultra-conservative groups have been blamed for death threats against politicians supporting the bill, vandalism of Socialist party offices and attacks on gays.
The fervor of opposition movement has been put down to the deep cleavages between left and right in France. Also stoking the fire are divisions between religious and secular traditions that date back to the Revolution of 1789, and that periodically flare up over issues ranging from schools' curricula to abortion.
Gay rights campaigner Ronzier points out that France has a history of street protests influencing politics, and that encourages demonstrators to believe they can change parliamentary opinion.
Others suggest the strength of the movement represents an attempt by French conservatives to find a rallying point following their defeat by President Francois Hollande and his Socialist Party in elections last year.
"The French people have an identity crisis," said Kevin, who works weekends selling gimp suits and whips at a store called Leather and Rubber, around the corner from the Rue des Archives.
"Some people aren't sure about their identity any more. Eith the Hollande government, the economic crisis — their lives don't have fixed anchor and that makes them resistant to change," he added.
Despite the current furor, French gays are confident the country will eventually be reconciled to marriage for all once the law is adopted.
"It will calm down, things will get back to normal and people will move on," Ronzier said.
In preparation, Paris hosted its first gay marriage salon on April 29, where would-be newly-weds could browse big day essentials offered by stylists, cake makers and florists.
The southern city of Montpellier, voted France's most gay-friendly city by the magazine Tetu, is hoping to hold France's first same-sex marriage in June. Paris is expected to follow soon after.
"I can't wait to marry all men and women of Paris who love each other," tweeted Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist favorite to win next year's mayoral election.