MONTPELLIER — Two men will marry in the southern French city of Montpellier on Wednesday, the first same-sex couple to wed in France under a reform that has stoked some of the fiercest street protests in the country in decades.
Vincent Aubin and Bruno Boileau - together since they hit it off six years ago discussing music on an online forum - will exchange vows in the city hall before the mayor, relatives and friends, and as many other well-wishers as can be crammed in.
“We hope it'll be forever, but if ever it ends, we'll be equal to any other married couple in that mess,” quipped Aubin in one of a blitz of local media interviews before the big day.
Despite strong support for the reform in Montpellier, which boasts of being France's most gay-friendly town, officials ditched plans to broadcast the ceremony live on a giant TV screen in the square outside over fears hardline opponents could sour the proceedings.
Unwilling to turn the square in front of the city hall into a fenced-off, high-security zone, the event will instead be beamed live online to the city council's website.
“It's a stressful time for Victor and Bruno. There are people who will try to mark this symbolic day with words of hate,” said Elodie Brun, a coordinator at the local Gay Pride Association, which Aubin heads.
Brun will be a witness to the nuptials, set for 5:30 p.m. (1530 GMT), and will sign the first ever marriage registry entry for two people of the same sex in a nation predominantly Roman Catholic but fiercely attached to separating church and state.
Backed by a slim majority of French and feted by gay men and lesbians when it came into force this month, a law making France the 14th country to allow same-sex marriage has triggered street protests by conservatives, Catholics and extreme right-wingers.
Frigide Barjot, a pink-clad comedian who leads the anti-gay marriage movement, has urged her supporters to stay away from Wednesday's wedding and expressed concern at right-wingers who have hurled bricks, bottles and firecrackers during marches. On Sunday, a massive march in Paris was marred by violence.
“I forbid militants from going to protest in Montpellier,” Barjot told Reuters TV after hardliners in motorcycle helmets beat up a press photographer at a march against the reform in Paris on Sunday.
“You don't protest against people who love each other - otherwise this movement becomes homophobic,” she said.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls pledged to toughen penalties for homophobic behavior, citing an increase in the number of threats against gay people on far-right forums online.
“Why do we need to toughen security? Because there are threats,” he told i-Tele news TV. “It's likely that we'll have to harden penalties for homophobic speech and behavior by law.”
Organizers of the wedding in Montpellier, a bohemian city with a medieval university, are taking no chances. Between 50 and 100 police and gendarmes were deployed and ready to cordon off any potential protests.
A few dozen members of the public will be let in to the 500-seat function room alongside invited guests and dozens of journalists for the wedding of the year in Montpellier's futuristic new city hall, built in blue glass.
“We'll do all the security checks we can,” said Brun. “Though at the end of the day we can't prevent somebody getting inside and shouting something in the middle of the ceremony.”
Aubin, 40, and Boileau, 29, were the first gay couple to apply to marry as Socialist President Francois Hollande was pushing through the law granting equal marriage and adoption rights that go beyond existing rules for civil partnerships.
Aubin proposed by phoning Boileau at work in September in front of city officials who had just announced that Montpellier would host the first gay wedding. Boileau, put publicly on the spot via speakerphone, was taken by surprise. But he said yes.
Since then, rallies that are partly fuelled by anger at the government over other issues like the economy appear to have eroded support for the gay marriage law; it now stands at 53 percent, with 47 percent opposed, reflecting a deep national division, particularly over the adoption rights it includes.
Last week, one opponent of gay marriage shot himself dead at the altar of Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral and on Sunday hundreds of thousands marched in the capital to demand the law's repeal.
That evening, the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, along France's Mediterranean coast from Montpellier, handed top prize to an explicit, taboo-shattering love story between two women.