France today became the largest country in Europe, and the first nominally Roman Catholic one, to legalize same-sex unions when the Socialist-dominated National Assembly pushed through legislation creating "civil solidarity pacts."

As a result of the action, unmarried French couples, including homosexuals, will be able to register their unions at courthouses for the first time next year and come away with most of the rights of traditional married couples.

Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou said the law will "offer a solution to 5 million people who live as couples without being married." An estimated 4.4 million of them are heterosexual couples.

Although the vote fell along party lines, 315 to 249 with four abstentions, opposition to the bill for the past year reflected urban-rural and generational divisions focused on homosexual unions.

Many of France's small-town mayors, including Socialists and Communists, made it clear they would have nothing to do with approving homosexual quasi-marriages. The registry venue was changed to courthouses.

On the other side, young right-wing voters' strong support for the legislation forced the opposition to tone down its attacks and soften the perception that it was out of touch with public sentiment.

Under the legislation, after three years of stated fidelity, unmarried couples can file tax forms jointly and claim rights of married couples, such as simultaneous vacation time from employers and lighter inheritance taxes. Citizens of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands all enjoy similar rights.

Opponents of the bill, including Catholic, Jewish and Muslim leaders, said it would loosen the bonds of family in France. Already, some 40 percent of French children are born to unwed parents. The French still consider themselves Catholics, but fewer than one in 10 people attend church.

The legislation could be challenged by an appeal to the Constitutional Court, France's highest legal body. According to center-right politician Patrick Devedjian, the novel grounds for the appeal would be that official same-sex marriages would create a national register of individuals based on sexual preference.