Court shuns France's first gay marriage

Couple vows "fight to the end" as issue causes political storm.

Published July 28, 2004 1:03PM (EDT)

France's first gay marriage was declared null and void by a Bordeaux court yesterday, confirming the conservative government's hostility on the issue and dealing a blow to the cause of same-sex unions in this traditionally Catholic country.

The court ruled that the marriage of Stephane Chapin, 33, a home nurse, and Bertrand Charpentier, 31, a warehouseman, in the south-western town of Bhgles on June 5 was not valid because "the traditional function of a marriage is commonly considered to be the founding of a family".

The couple's lawyer, Emmanuel Pierrat, said they would appeal against the ruling, taking their case up to France's supreme court and, if necessary, to the European court of human rights. He said the pair would remain legally wed until the appeals process had been exhausted.

"We have every confidence that these higher courts will have a slightly more avant-garde view of the concept of a family," Mr Pierrat said. Mr Charpentier promised to "fight to the end  But this time we will win because we have faith in our country".

Within hours of the ceremony, the interior minister, Dominique Perben, demanded the marriage be annulled "in conformity with the law". The public prosecutor had also said the union was illegal because France's civil code did not permit same-sex marriages. Noel Mamhre, the campaigning Green MP who conducted the ceremony in his capacity as mayor of Bhgles, was suspended from his post for a month for "ignoring the warnings of senior government figures" and "gravely misunderstanding his duties as an elected official".

He said yesterday he was determined to take the struggle further. "It would have been a revolution if the ruling had gone the other way, because they came under pressure from the authorities," he said.

A recent poll showed 64% of French people in favour of same-sex weddings.

Gay rights activists hailed Mr Chapin's and Mr Charpentier's wedding as a victory for tolerance, but the Catholic church and conservatives denounced it as an attack on the very fabric of French society, insisting that children needed a mother and a father and that the issue was too serious to be decided in a hurry.

Politically, the issue is embarrassing both right and left. President Jacques Chirac and the prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, have been trying hard to court the gay vote but were obliged to abandon the effort in the face of " le mariage de Bhgles ".

The left is divided on the controversy: several leading figures, including the former prime minister Lionel Jospin and his family affairs minister, Sigolhne Royal, have said they disapprove; would-be modernisers such as Frangois Hollande, Ms Royal's partner and the party's general secretary, are in favour.

Even the popular Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, France's most senior openly gay politician, finds himself in difficulty. While he has declared his support for gay marriage, and condemned the sanction meted out to Mr Mamhre, he has refused to authorise any same-sex weddings in Paris until the law allows them.

Mr Mamhre argues that nowhere does the French civil code state that a marriage cannot be celebrated between two people of the same sex, and points out that it is an overriding principle of French law that "that which is not specifically outlawed is permissible".

By Jon Henley

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