Noel Mamère, 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. Mamère'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.
Mamère 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 Mamère'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 Bègles, 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 Mamère, 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. In California, a ruling on whether San Francisco's mayor abused his powers earlier this year is expected within 90 days.
Ironically, says Mr. Boren, marriage as an institution is not tremendously popular among French homosexuals; younger lesbians, especially, see it as a hidebound patriarchal system from which people ought to free themselves. "But because it is one of the last bastions closed to gays, we say that is not normal and we want to get married," he adds.
Especially, he says, because legal marriage would open up the possibility of adopting children. "I can't say we are all waiting impatiently" for gays to be allowed to marry, Boren says, "but if the door opens people will go through it because on the other side is adoption, and that is fundamental."
It is also more complicated, and more difficult for European heterosexual society to accept, according to opinion polls.
Fifty-eight percent of French citizens favor the legalization of same-sex marriage, a poll by Gallup showed last year, almost exactly in line with the European Union average at the time, 57 percent. Opinions were widely divergent on the issue, however, ranging from 82 percent in favor in Denmark to only 16 percent in Greece. (US public opinion is currently 42 percent in favor, according to a recent Gallup poll in America.)
The Netherlands and Belgium are the only European countries that currently allow gay couples to marry, and Belgium does not allow them to adopt children. By the end of this year, Sweden and Spain are expected to approve Dutch-style "sexually neutral" marriage, identical for heterosexuals and homosexuals.
Elsewhere in Europe, Scandinavian countries, Germany, Portugal, and some Spanish regions offer gay couples the same sort of civil unions as France does, and Britain is in the process of passing a similar law. Even in Ireland, where homosexual acts were a criminal offense until 1993, Parliament is considering giving unmarried couples - whatever their sexual orientation - some of the tax, retirement, health, and other benefits of marriage.
In only a handful of countries do most people approve of homosexual couples adopting children, according to the Gallup poll. They are Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and, perhaps surprisingly, traditionally Catholic Spain. In general, 55 percent of Europeans oppose the idea, while 42 percent support it.
Tellingly, say gay rights activists, allowing gay couples to adopt children is most popular (64 percent in favor) in the country where it has been legal the longest: the Netherlands. Indeed, after three years, marriages between gays are routine there, says Mr. Krol. There have been more than 6,000 of them, some based on prenuptial agreements, and Dutch family courts are now processing the first gay divorces.
"I'm married, and I have exactly the same marriage my parents did," says Krol. "All the countries that have civil unions are now thinking of opening civil marriage" to gay couples, he adds. "If civil unions are the first step, OK. But they will never be the final goal, which is treating people equally. Because the issue is equal rights."