PARIS -- French President Francois Hollande delivered on a controversial campaign pledge Wednesday, sending the legislature a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in France, Europe's second-most-populous nation.
Hollande's Cabinet approved the draft "marriage for all" bill, which would give same-sex couples the same legal rights as heterosexual ones, including the ability to adopt children. Lawmakers are set to examine the measure in Parliament in mid-January.
The proposal was declared a historic event by many French media organizations and comes 31 years after the French government refused to recognize medical designations of homosexuality as a mental illness. The new bill was unveiled just hours after voters on the other side of the Atlantic, in the states of Maryland and Maine, approved same-sex-marriage measures.
Hollande hailed the bill as a sign of "progress not only for a few, but for the whole of society."
"It's an important step toward equal rights for all," said Dominique Bertinotti, minister in charge of family issues, as she left the Cabinet meeting Wednesday afternoon.
"We don't take anything away from heterosexual couples," Bertinotti added. "We enlarge and give the possibility for same-sex couples to have the same rights and, I repeat, the same duties."
However, the bill is running into serious opposition in this traditionally Roman Catholic country, and Hollande's Socialist government is bracing for a difficult public debate, even though the political left holds a majority in both houses of Parliament.
Opponents have become increasingly vocal, and disapproval of same-sex marriage has been growing for the first time in a decade, though it remains a minority opinion, according to recent polls.
Catholic leaders have launched a public campaign against the bill, with nationwide protests planned for mid-November. On Saturday, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois told a conference of bishops: "A vision of the human being without the recognition of sexual difference would be a hoax that would undermine the foundations of our society."
His remarks, which some commentators in the French media have branded the Catholic Church's "new crusade," also called on followers to write to their elected representatives and use all democratic means to express their opposition. Muslim and Jewish leaders also have spoken out against the bill.
Conservative political leaders are united against it as well, barring some exceptions. Leaders of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement party, or UMP, said they would reverse such a law if they regain power. A group of conservative French mayors has also said they would refuse to marry same-sex couples if the measure passes.
"Do we want a country of homos? In 10 years there will be nobody left. It's stupid," Serge Dassault, a UMP senator, told French radio, warning of a supposed drop in population if same-sex couples were given the right to marry. "Look at history, [ancient] Greece -- it's one of the reasons for its decline. It's the end of the family."
Gay activists have called for a rally in favor of the measure Wednesday night in front of the National Assembly, France's lower house.
-- Devorah Lauter
Photo: Two women kiss in front of demonstrators protesting in southern France last month against same-sex marriage and adoption by gay and lesbian couples. Credit: Julien Gerard / AFP/Getty Images