PARIS — With France's first gay marriage celebrated this week in the southern city of Montpellier, it seems the country may have finally turned the page on a bitterly divisive issue that sparked massive protests and violence. Or maybe not.
Vincent Autin and Bruno Bioleau made history on Wednesday, becoming the first same-sex couple to marry legally in France. The two men wore dark suits and held hands, as they were married in a civil ceremony at Montpellier town hall.
Gay activists and rights groups around the world hailed the event.
"I think it's very significant. It's the first [gay marriage] in France," said Boris Dittrich, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "First of all, symbolically of course, it's a new era where France opened its civil marriage for same-sex couples. But I think it's also inspiring for those who are striving for non-discrimination to see that such a big European country is treating gay couples the same as heterosexual couples."
The occasion marked an upbeat cap to a painful and angry debate over whether to legalize same-sex marriage. The law was a foregone conclusion, since the left, which controls the French government, vowed to pass it. Polls also show the majority of French support the legislation. But that didn't stop hundreds of thousands of people from taking to the streets to protest gay marriage and gay adoptions - which now are also legal.
The spillover into violence, with attacks on police and gays, has divided the protest movement. Nonetheless, leaders like Frigide Barjot, who championed peaceful dissent and gay rights, have vowed to carry on their battle.
In an interview on French radio this week, Barjot said the battle against gay marriage is a social fight and critics like herself are in the majority. What's important, she said is human dignity, and efforts to undermine this will have political and economic repercussions.
And, in fact, there are significant political overtones to the dissent. French have taken to the street not only to protest gay marriage but also the policies of Socialist President Francois Hollande, who is battling dismal popularity ratings a year into office.
Not surprisingly, said political science professor Steven Ekovich, of the American University of Paris, the conservative opposition has been capitalizing on the dissent.
"When a president has low poll ratings, of course the opposition will use anything that comes across the horizon to try to attack the president. This is, of course, aimed at winning elections the next time they come around," he said.
While gay marriage has exposed deep social and cultural rifts in France, Ekovich said bread and butter issues like jobs and the economy are what ultimately count for French voters. The news for both is grim, which means Hollande faces an uphill road.
Other countries to follow?
HRW's Dittrich believes the dissent over gay marriage here may inspire critics to mount similar protests movements elsewhere in Europe, where same-sex marriage legislation is being considered. And politicians in Africa and other conservative regions may use the French example as a scare tactic to fuel homophobic sentiments.
"But, on the other hand, sometimes when I speak to human rights defenders from LGBT groups in those countries, they are inspired by something like a marriage in France because they know somewhere in the world, people are really treated equally and have the same rights - and that's what they aspire to in their country," said Dittrich.
So it seems that, one way or another, the gay marriage debate is not over.