At times it looked almost like any wedding, with the happy couple kissing, holding hands and waving to friends and family as Frank Sinatra’s Love and Marriage blasted over the loudspeaker.
But this was no ordinary wedding. It was the first gay marriage in France, and the couple, Bruno Boileau and Vincent Autin, have become symbols of a debate that has fractured the country.
For months, France has seen massive demonstrations against gay marriage, including one last Sunday in Paris that attracted an estimated 150,000 people, as well as a suicide protest at Notre Dame Cathedral. Polls show a majority of people support gay marriage but not gay adoption. But the government refused to back down, and a law approving same-sex marriage and adoption took effect last week. Mr. Autin indicated that he and Mr. Boileau plan to adopt children.
Mr. Boileau, 30, and Mr. Autin, 40, certainly didn’t shy away from publicity during their ceremony on Wednesday in Montpellier, a city of about 500,000 people in southern France that bills itself as the most gay-friendly in the country. They invited more than 500 guests, including politicians, celebrities and gay-rights activists. The city joined in the celebration, broadcasting the wedding live on its website and making accommodations for more than 100 journalists to attend. Hundreds of others, both in favour and against gay marriage, stood outside the town hall and were watched closely by a small army of police.
After a 30-minute delay because of a bomb threat, Montpellier Mayor Hélène Mandroux, a socialist, opened the ceremony by declaring it a historic occasion. “Vincent, Bruno, you will, we will, live a historic moment,” she said. “A historic moment for our country, for our republic.”
While France became the 14th country to legalize gay marriage, the struggle here and elsewhere has been monumental at times. The French National Assembly debated the issue for 172 hours with near fistfights breaking out at times. Last week, a far-right historian who opposed gay marriage killed himself at the altar of Notre Dame Cathedral. In Britain, more than 100 Conservative members of Parliament defied their leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, and voted against a gay-marriage bill sponsored by the government. The bill passed through the House of Commons but is expected to receive a rough ride in the House of Lords.
In Montpellier on Wednesday, Ms. Mandroux spoke at length about the importance of the gay-marriage law, calling it a step in the modernization of France and a sign of dignity and respect for all people. Referring to the demonstrations, she asked: “What happened in our country that today the simple fact of establishing marriage for all leads to such an outburst of hatred, violence and division?”
At the end of the ceremony. she announced: “It is a great honour for me to tell you that you are united by marriage under the law.”
Mr. Autin, who works in the local tourist office, and Mr. Boileau, a civil servant, met online in 2006 on a pop music forum. Once the law allowing same-sex marriage passed, they vowed to be the first gay couple to marry in France and immediately made plans. After Wednesday’s ceremony, Mr. Autin, who also heads a local Gay Pride association, thanked the couple’s supporters and said they illustrated a “real symbol of solidarity between people so that our marriage could be possible. … It’s a true symbol, a symbol of love.” He told reporters the newlyweds plan to adopt children and start a family.
Some opponents of gay marriage were furious at the public display, saying the event had more to do with politics than marriage. “The way this ‘first’ marriage is advertised is rather shocking and irresponsible,” Caroline Roux, general secretary of Alliance VITA, said in an interview. “Our country is divided on this issue. At least the first marriage should be discreet. That is private life.”
Ms. Roux vowed to keep fighting the law. “We do not know if we can overturn the law but we will work [for the government not to go further]. When a law is unfair, we have the duty to say it and fight inequality and injustice.”