STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Paris yesterday to protest government efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. The demonstration was considered one of the largest in years. The government of President Francois Hollande says it will go ahead anyway. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: They came from every corner of France, by car, bus and specially reserved high speed train. They wound their way through the French capital from three different starting points, filling the boulevards until they converged under the Eiffel Tower for a giant rally. There were old people, young people and lots of families with children.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in French)
BEARDSLEY: In fact, children were the main point of the demonstration. Rather than homophobic placards, protestors carried banners with smiling babies on them that read, Made In Momma, Plus Papa. Marie Gabrielle(ph) says it's not right for a child to have two mothers or two fathers.
MARIE GABRIELLE: The marriage is done for people who want to have children and for the moment, two guys cannot have babies. That's all. That's just the nature.
BEARDSLEY: Thirty-six-year-old Ludavic Lamay(ph) fears opening the way for same-sex adoption and conception will shake the very foundation of society.
LUDAVIC LAMAY: The thing that they say, it's more the question of the sentimentality, the society today, do we want this type of wedding and this type of family for children.
BEARDSLEY: France does have civil unions for same-sex couples, but the law has no provisions for adoption or assisted reproduction, issues that have become a lightening rod in the current debate. When Hollande promised to legalize same-sex marriage on the campaign trail, most observers thought the measure would pass easily in France, which lags behind its Europeans neighbors on marriage and adoption rights for gays.
But instead, it has churned up French society, bringing deep traditional currents to the surface. The issue has also highlighted the divide between urban and more conservative rural France. Many marchers carried regional flags with emblems dating back to the middle ages. While polls show a majority of French are for same-sex marriage, support for the bill has fallen since August as the Catholic Church has managed to mobilize a hybrid coalition of church-going families, political conservatives, Muslims, Evangelicals and even gays to oppose it.
And Hollande's clumsy handling of other campaign promises has the opposition salivating that he'll botch this one, too. Jean Francois Cope(ph), a conservative from former President Nicolas Sarkozy's party, said France had other priorities like fighting Islamist radicals in Mali. He urged Hollande to hold a referendum and let the people decide.
JEAN FRANCOIS COPE: (Through translator) Perhaps now is the time for Francois Hollande to listen to the clamor of the French people who are deeply divided over this issue.
BEARDSLEY: As the demo breaks up well after dark, I strike up a conversation with 72-year-old Guino Vanelle(ph) who is heading home. I asked him if the march will send a message to Francois Hollande.
GUINO VANELLE: Well, of course. What is good is that you had Roman Catholics. You had Jews. You had Muslims. You had people coming from the provinces.
BEARDSLEY: But speaking on television last night, government Minister Michel Sapin seemed unimpressed.
MICHEL SAPIN: (Speaking foreign language)
BEARDSLEY: It's good they're expressing their opinion, said Sapin, but in six months, will we remember this march? I don't think so. And by then, the law will be passed and no one will go back on it. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.