For Yannick Gervais, a French computer engineer in his early 40s, it is a dream come true.
Later this week, he and his longtime partner, Ren Varnier, will present themselves at the town hall of Paris's 12th district, sign a "civil solidarity pact," and become one of the first homosexual couples in France to legalize their union.
After 21 years of living together, "at last we will have society's recognition that we are a couple," he says. "Symbolically this is going to mean a lot to us."
For conservative lawmaker Christine Boutin, their signature will be another serious blow to an institution already under threat in France: marriage. "This is obviously going to weaken the family," she says. "And it's only the beginning." In a country where 40 percent of children are born to unmarried couples, the question of how to strengthen relationships and the fabric of society is an important one.
The "civil solidary pact," known by its French acronym PACS, became law last week, making France the first traditionally Catholic country in the world to legalize homosexual unions. It is part of a major shift in the way ordinary people, and the state, view unmarried couples, especially homosexual ones.
After a stormy passage through parliament, often violent public debate, and amid warnings from the Roman Catholic Church, the law now extends to unmarried - but registered - couples some of the tax, welfare, and inheritance rights that married couples enjoy.
It carries forward a trend across Europe, where governments have been giving increasing legal recognition to unwed couples, same-sex or not.
Three weeks ago in Britain, a homosexual man won a five-year court battle to be treated as a "family member" linked to his deceased partner. The House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament, ruled that a "stable and permanent" relationship was sufficient to confer family rights.
In the United States, no state recognizes homosexual marriage. Thirty states have approved legislation barring the recognition of such unions if they should become legal in another state, and five states are considering similar laws.
For Mr. Gervais, the new French law means that "society recognizes us in day-to-day life as fully fledged citizens. It's not that much to ask - we pay our taxes, we do our civic duties just like everyone else."
From now on, he hopes, a host of mundane but awkward problems will disappear. He and his partner will be able to share joint auto insurance, for example.
More important, they will be able to extend their social-security coverage to each other, file joint tax returns, and leave each other property in their wills on favorable tax terms.
Critics, however, say that there was no need for a law to resolve such questions, and that the legislation's effect "will be to devalue the sense of commitment" that men and women should feel when formalizing a relationship, in the words of the Rev. Stanislas Lalanne, a spokesman for the Catholic church.
But Justice Minister Elizabeth Guigou, who presented the bill to parliament, argued that the PACS would help support families. "An intermediate juridical framework ... between de facto cohabitation and the institution of marriage," she said, should "encourage those who are struggling against the dissolution of social bonds."
The pacs is open to those "who do not want to or cannot marry," who are not members of the same family, and who are not already married or signatories to another PACS. It can be dissolved immediately by mutual agreement, or with three months' notice by one of the two partners.
This does not replace marriage, insists Jean-Pierre Michel, the Socialist deputy who pushed the law through parliament. "The motivations encouraging heterosexual couples to marry will remain the same ... whether that be the symbolic force of a commitment celebrated by a representative of the state, or the rights that accrue" to married people, he argued.
Still, the legal recognition granted to unwed couples worries church authorities. "A lifestyle should not necessarily become a point of reference," argued the Catholic Bishops' Conference, in a statement criticizing the PACS bill.
Conservatives are also concerned that the PACS is the thin end of the wedge. Although couples united by a PACS are specifically barred by the new law from adopting children or from procuring medically assisted conceptions, such bans will likely be lifted one day, say both proponents and opponents of the law.
"If heterosexual couples in a PACS are allowed to adopt, which they will be one day, it will be impossible to prevent homosexual couples, who are in the same juridical situation, from adopting," predicts Ms. Boutin.
"This law is only the first step toward the adoption of children by people living in a homosexual relationship," said Archbishop Louis-Marie Bill, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, the night that the PACS became law. "We fear for the future."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society