A man kisses his companion during a demonstration for the legalisation of gay marriage and LGBT parenting in Paris on Dec. 16, 2012. As President Francois Hollande’s government prepares to vote gay marriage into law, thousands of mayors across France have risen up to voice their opposition. (LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

For Patrick Laplace, the mayor of this trim little town, the Socialist government’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in France is a colossal mistake.

Laplace has not taken his stand for political reasons. He belongs to the Radical Party, a loyal ally of the majority Socialist Party in Parliament. Nor has he decided for religious reasons. Laplace has faith in God but puts no stock in the organized church. His opposition, he said, arises from a rational analysis defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman for family and filiation.

“And I’ve heard no one here in Blerancourt who disagrees with me,” Laplace, a 59-year-old former banking executive, said in his ornate town hall rising from the flatlands 75 miles northeast of Paris.

As President Francois Hollande’s government prepares to have its comfortable majority vote gay marriage into law, probably late next month, thousands of mayors, deputy mayors and other small-town officials across France have risen up to voice their opposition.

The movement largely ignores political and religious lines, according to its organizers. Instead, they say, it dramatizes another line, one that divides Paris, with its trends and politics, from the countless smaller communities around France where most people remain attached to timeless values in a tradition-heavy society with deep Christian roots.

In some ways, the hesitations in France resemble those in the United States, where the District of Columbia, Maryland and eight other states have approved same-sex marriage but where vast swaths of the country disagree. In what is likely to affect the debate in other states, the Supreme Court agreed this month to review state and federal efforts to limit marriage to a union between a man and a woman.

But here in France, the battle over gay marriage is being fought in the street and in the media, not in the courts. France being France, it is a battle that revolves around ideas and philosophy, not legalities.

In an unusual display, France’s Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist spiritual leaders joined hands Nov. 29 to testify against the proposed law before a parliamentary commission. Opponents from several spontaneous groups staged demonstrations in a dozen French cities last month and have promised a giant march Jan. 13 in hopes of delaying the National Assembly vote and forcing the government to hold a referendum.

On the other side, Socialist leaders and gay activists have noted that Hollande clearly listed homosexual marriage as part of the program on which he was elected in May — implying that it has been approved by a majority of the French people. Citing favorable majorities in opinion polls, they describe the issue as a question of human rights, saying there is no reason to deprive gay couples of the same marriage and family enjoyed by heterosexuals.

Moreover, France has fallen behind other progressive countries in Europe, they complain, noting that gay marriage has been authorized in seven European countries, including Spain and Portugal, which are heavily Roman Catholic.

Civil Solidarity Pact

Same-sex couples already can have their union solemnized by law in France under what is called the Civil Solidarity Pact, or PACS by its French initials. Since the measure was enacted under a previous Socialist government in 1999, more than half a million couples have entered into a PACS.

But contrary to what was expected, the overwhelming majority have been heterosexual couples. The goal of gay rights advocates now is to erase the difference altogether, instituting marriage for same-sex couples, with the right to adopt children and, for lesbians, to seek to procreate through artificial insemination.

In that spirit, more than 50,000 mostly young advocates organized a rollicking parade in Paris on Sunday, led by techno-music dancers on a truck bed and a brace of Socialist Party figures talking nonstop into accompanying television cameras. Prominent among Socialist leaders at the head of the procession was Bertrand Delanoe, the openly gay mayor of Paris.

But away from the capital, the doubts grow among small-town mayors, whose most sacred duties include donning blue-white-and-red sashes and performing marriages according to legal formulas stretching back to the Napoleonic Code. In an unmistakable sign of how iconic the role is, Blerancourt, population 1,300, has in its town hall an elegant stairway to a landing where two unmistakable signs of government authority greet visitors: One, pointing left, directs them to the “wedding hall,” and the other, pointing right, directs them to “the mayor’s office.”

The main opposition party, the conservative Union for a Popular Movement, has been largely absent from efforts to head off the proposed law. Its two main figures, party leader Jean-Francois Cope and former prime minister Francois Fillon, have been locked in a bitter leadership struggle, sapping the group’s strength and leaving the mayors mostly to fend for themselves.

Nevertheless, Franck Meyer, mayor of Sotteville-sous-le-Val near Rouen, said he and other organizers of a group called Mayors for Childhood have gathered more than 18,000 signatures from among France’s 155,000 mayors and deputy mayors on a petition demanding that a “conscience clause” be included in the law, allowing mayors to refuse to perform gay marriages.

“These are people from right-wing parties, from left-wing parties, and some are not from any party at all,” Meyer said in a telephone interview.

Hollande’s party to decide

Several members of Parliament have said they will introduce an amendment for the conscience clause. But with its absolute majority, Hollande’s Socialist Party has the power to decide.

The law as approved by the government opens the way for gay marriages and adoptions but does not address demands for the right to medically assisted paternity; Hollande has said this will be up to the Socialist majority in Parliament.

Meyer said the petitioners have left undecided the question of whether they will perform same-sex marriages despite their convictions if the law passes. A small number of mayors have announced publicly, however, that they will refuse.

“I will exercise one way or another my right to stand aside in order not to proceed with such marriages because it would be a profound change to the Judeo-Christian society to which I belong,” said Jean Bizet, a conservative senator and mayor of Teilleul in Normandy.

Hollande recently told a group from the National Association of French Mayors that such a clause would be included so no one would be forced to go against personal convictions. But several days later, addressing a delegation from a group called the Inter-
Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans, he seemed to reverse course, saying the law “will be applied everywhere.”