Two men married each other in the southern French city of Montpellier on Wednesday, in the first same-sex wedding in a country rocked by protests against and for the reform.
Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau exchanged vows in the city hall before the mayor, relatives and friends as dozens of riot police stood guard outside to ensure the ceremony was not interrupted by protesters.
The two men, who have been together since they hit it off six years ago discussing music in an online forum, embraced to wild cheers from the audience of some 500 people and the strains of “Love and Marriage” by US crooner Frank Sinatra.
“It’s a great pleasure for me to declare you married by law,” said Montpellier Mayor Helene Mandroux as the couple, both dressed in dark suits, kissed and signed the marriage registry.
The ceremony marked a symbolic end to months of debate that often overshadowed France’s economic woes, sealing Socialist President Francois Hollande’s reputation as a reformer despite bitter and continued opposition from Catholics and conservatives.
Despite support for the reform in Montpellier, which boasts of being France’s most gay-friendly town, officials scrapped plans to broadcast the wedding live on a giant TV screen and instead beamed it live online to the city’s website.
Moments before the men walked in, a smoke bomb was lobbed from outside into the perimeter of the city hall. Security guards rushed to investigate, but the wedding went ahead.
An emotional Autin gave a brief speech to the audience, thanking his family, friends and government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a personal friend present at the ceremony.
“Love each other, love us, love one another, because it’s important,” said Autin from a balcony to a crowd of hundreds of well-wishers outside the city hall, adding the next step would be a law allowing gay couples to adopt children.
After the men exchanged a kiss, Mandroux signed the first ever marriage registry entry for two people of the same sex in France, a nation predominantly Roman Catholic but fiercely attached to the separation of 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.
“This is a historic moment in your own lives... and a historic moment for our country,” Mandroux told the ceremony. “We are building here together the society of tomorrow.”
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.
Hundreds of the well-wishers outside city hall and many of the guests inside were dressed fancifully, with men in drag made up as nuns and others wearing gold and pink capes.
“It’s a fantastic day for us, for our generation and for the kids that will have proper homes because of this,” said Lucile Dampierre, 24, a student and lesbian activist who was trying to get one of the seats reserved for members of the public.
Earlier, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls pledged to toughen penalties for homophobic behaviour, citing an increase in the number of threats against gay people on online forums.
“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 behaviour by law.”
Organisers of the wedding in Montpellier, a bohemian city with a mediaeval university, took 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 were 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.
Bruno’s teary-eyed mother, Dominique Boileau, dressed in a short white dress and coral jacket, told reporters: “I cried when Hollande passed the law and I am still crying. I am proud of them.”
Homosexuality, still a crime in some 78 countries, has been legal in France since the Revolution, and the age of consent was lowered to that of heterosexual relations in 1981.
Autin, 40, and Boileau, 29, were the first gay couple to apply to marry as President Hollande was pushing through the law, which grants equal marriage and adoption rights that go beyond existing rules for civil partnerships.
Autin 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. A surprised Boileau, put publicly on the spot via speakerphone, 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 per cent, with 47 per cent 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.