Marriage debate intensifies in France


France’s classrooms have become the latest battleground in an increasingly fraught debate on the government’s plan to introduce gay marriage.

Religious groups and opposition parties have escalated their campaign against President François Hollande’s proposals, which are due to be debated in parliament later this month, and organisers of a protest in Paris next weekend claim it could draw as many as half a million people.

The issue has divided opinion and caused a tense standoff between the government and the Catholic Church. But this week that pillar of France’s republican model – the classroom – has become the focus of the exchanges between the two sides.

Education minister Vincent Peillon criticised the head of France’s Catholic schools, which are private but subsidised by the state, for urging his principals to discuss same-sex marriage with pupils.

“This education system, which is under contract to the state, should respect the principle of neutrality and the freedom of conscience of all,” he stated in a letter to regional education officials.

Caution urged

These officials should scrutinise debates in Catholic schools and report any anti-gay views aired in them, Mr Peillon said. He urged caution on the issue because young homosexuals were five times more prone to suicide than heterosexual.

Mr Hollande backed his minister in the name of laïcité, the concept underpinning the legal separation of church and state.

The opposition rounded on the government, accusing it of unfairly targeting Catholic schools, which cater for the huge majority of the 20 per cent of French pupils who attend private schools.

Laurent Wauquiez, a conservative former minister, took issue with Mr Peillon for linking Catholic opposition to the draft law and youth suicide, calling this a “a big political manipulation”.

Opponents of the new law took its supporters by surprise in November when they brought about 100,000 out in Paris for what was meant as a warm-up to the protest next weekend. Catholic leaders have encouraged people to join next Sunday’s demonstration, but most will not march themselves.

The marriage debate has exposed differences of opinion in a number of parties, but attention has focused on an apparent split in the far-right National Front. The party’s ruling body has passed a motion calling on those of its supporters “who wish” to take part to join Sunday’s protest, but party leader Marine Le Pen has said she will not attend.

Opinion polls show up to 60 per cent of voters support same-sex marriage, and just under 50 per cent support adoption rights for gay couples.