France Joins Gay Marriage Debate ; A Mayor Challenges France to Consider Gay Marriage by Offering the Nation Its First Same-Sex 'Wedding' Next Week

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Noel Mamere, a radical leader of France's small Green Party, is no stranger to controversy. But his latest stunt has not only sparked a fierce national debate, it has earned him a police escort to ensure his safety in the face of death threats.

His outrage? To officiate - in his capacity as a town mayor - at the country's first gay marriage next week, following in the footsteps of San Francisco's mayor, who challenged California law by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples earlier this year.

He also pushes France in the direction of the Netherlands and Belgium, which have already legalized same-sex marriage, and Sweden and Spain, which are in the process of doing so, as Europe moves in fits and starts toward allowing homosexual couples to share the rights and duties of married life.

France, for now, has legalized only limited civil unions between gay couples, which puts Mr. Mamere's plans to join a shop assistant and a health care worker in marriage on June 5 almost certainly outside the law. The marriage will be "purely and simply null," Justice Minister Dominique Perben told the conservative daily "Le Figaro," because France's civil code requires husband and wife to be man and woman.

Mamere knows as well as anyone that his gesture will be struck down by the courts, but he believes in the power of provocation to shake things up. "In societies as fossilized as ours, it is a political weapon," he said this week.

In the Netherlands, the only country in the world to have given homosexuals exactly the same marriage rights as heterosexuals, the man who made that happen applauds Mamere's "coup de theatre."

"It always takes a few towns, a few officials who want to make a statement, to start the debate," says Henk Krol, editor of "Gay News" who launched the campaign that changed Dutch law in 2001. "Things like this put the issue on the political agenda, and once it is on, it won't ever come off."

The coming marriage in Begles, a small town in southwestern France, has certainly created a stir in French political circles and on the opinion pages of national newspapers. The conservative government has condemned Mamere, but even President Jacques Chirac said at a recent news conference that he thought the question of gay unions needed discussing. "Experience shows," he said, that a 1999 law providing for civil unions "has not provided all the guarantees, all the solutions to problems linked to human rights."

The opposition Socialist Party adopted same-sex marriage as official policy two weeks ago, and promised to present a draft bill to Parliament in the fall, but the question has divided the party leadership, with former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin coming out against. It was Mr. Jospin's government that five years ago introduced the "Civil Solidarity Pact" (PACS), a form of civil union open to both straights and gays that offers some of the legal rights of marriage but is more easily dissolved.

That is not enough, says Dominique Boren, president of the Gay and Lesbian Center, a campaigning and information center for homosexuals in Paris. "The PACS is a property agreement registered at a court. Marriage offers symbolic recognition of the emotional aspects, and gives a couple official status." It also offers more material benefits, he adds.

While Massachusetts began granting marriage licenses to homosexual couples May 17, a case on the constitutionality of California's ban on gay weddings is making its way through the courts. …