Supporters of gay marriage demonstrate in Paris on Wednesday. Photo: AFP
Plans to introduce gay marriage and adoption rights have been approved by France's government, while a court ruling in Spain upheld the legalisation of same-sex marriage there.
France's Socialist president, Francois Hollande, had made same-sex marriage and adoption a cornerstone of his election campaign, promising a law before mid-2013. The draft legislation goes before parliament in January.
France would become the 12th country to introduce legalise gay marriage – after others such as Canada, South Africa, Spain and Portugal. But with 60 million people it would be the biggest in terms of economic and diplomatic influence.
"This would be progress not just for the few, but for our whole society," Mr Hollande told the cabinet meeting, the government spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
But the plans have proved more divisive than he and the left had hoped. Amid a conservative backlash, Catholic church protests and political squabbling, draft legislation has been slightly delayed and, some gay activists argue, watered down.
The new law would allow marriage for all, regardless of sexual orientation. This means homosexual couples – who have had the right to civil partnerships since 1999 – could, through marriage, take their partners' name and gain automatic inheritance and pension rights.
Adoption would also become legal for married same-sex couples. This is significant in allowing gay partners to adopt children they are currently co-parenting. Under French law, unmarried partners – irrespective of sexual orientation – will not be able to adopt.
The law would also scrap all use of "mother" and "father" in the French legal code, replacing that gender distinction with the word "parent".
But campaigners have complained that a key element will not be included: the right to medically assisted conception for gay couples, for example a lesbian couple seeking IVF. The prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has suggested an amendment may be added later, but some in the Socialist party want procreation rights to be granted immediately, as well as legal recognition of children born to surrogate mothers outside France, where the practice is illegal.
The latest Ifop poll for Le Monde showed 65 per cent of French people backed same-sex marriage, but parenting rights are more divisive, with 52 per cent in favour of gay couples adopting.
The Catholic church in France – a secular republic where mass-going has plummeted in recent years – has stepped up its opposition. Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris, warned that gay marriage was a sham that would "shake one of the foundations of our society".
Jewish leaders and other religious groups have also criticised the plans, although the main representative body of the Muslim faith, the French Muslim Council, said that while gay marriage was not in Islamic teaching, religious rules could not hold sway over the laws of secular France.
Key figures in Nicolas Sarkozy's rightwing UMP party warned they would repeal the law if they returned to power. The far-right leader Marine Le Pen called for a referendum. The UMP senator Serge Dassault told French Radio that same-sex marriage and adoption would be "the end of the family, the end of children's development, the end of education. It's an enormous danger to the nation."
One local mayor was roundly criticised earlier this year after he warned legalising gay marriage would open the way to legalising polygamy or incest.
In Spain, the Constitutional Court upheld a law legalising same-sex marriage, ending a seven-year battle to overturn one of the biggest legislative victories of the former Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
The court, the highest in Spain, ruled 8-3 not to hear an appeal, the Madrid-based tribunal said in a statement.The challenge was brought by more than 50 members of Congress belonging to the conservative People’s Party when it was in opposition. The party was voted into power in December, ending seven years of governance by Mr Zapatero’s Socialists.
The Spanish justices will publish a full written opinion at a later date.
Guardian News & Media; Bloomberg