The lower house of the French parliament has approved a bill that puts France on track to legalise gay marriage and allow same-sex couples to adopt children.
"This law is a first necessary step, a social evolution that benefits society overall"
- Corinne Narassiguin, Socialist party
Tuesday's measure, approved in the National Assembly in a 329-to-229 vote, puts France on course to join nearly a dozen mostly European nations that allow gay marriage and comes despite a string of recent demonstrations by opponents of the so-called "marriage for all" bill.
"This law is going to extend to all families the protections guaranteed by the institution of marriage,'' Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said ahead of Tuesday's vote.
"Contrary to what those who vociferate against it say fortunately they're in the minority this law is going to strengthen the
institution of marriage", Ayrault said.
Conservative opponents forced a discussion of nearly 5,000 amendments, a move derided by Socialists as inconsequential stalling tactics.
Tuesday's vote makes France and Britain the largest European nations to adopt pro-gay marriage policies.
Polls indicate a narrow majority of French support legalising gay marriage, though that support falls when questions about the adoption and conception of children come into play.
"Opening up marriage and adoption to homosexual couples is a very beautiful advance. ... It is an emblematic vote, a vote that will mark history", said Corinne Narassiguin, Socialist representative, announcing her party's support for the measure.
The Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Spain, as well as Argentina, Canada and South Africa have authorised gay marriage, along with nine US states and the District of Columbia.
"This law is a first necessary step, a social evolution that benefits society overall," Narassiguin said.
However, the political right has not given up just yet, saying the Constitutional Court, whose 12 members include three former French presidents and several other prominent conservatives, will determine whether the law, if finally passed, meshes with the law of the land.
"So it's not the end of the story yet", said Herve Mariton, a member of the main opposition UMP party.
"We still have arguments to make and we want to convince people that it is not a good project."
Francois Hollande, the French president, made legalising gay marriage one of the planks in his 60-point programme on the way to winning the presidency in May over Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative incumbent.