Hollande’s “marriage for all” law is the biggest social reform in France since his left-wing mentor and predecessor François Mitterrand abolished the death penalty in 1981, a move which also split the nation.
Policymakers in the lower house National Assembly, where Hollande’s Socialists have an absolute majority, passed the bill by 331 votes for and 225 against, making France the 14th country in the world to allow same-sex couples to wed.
But legions of officers and water cannon stood ready near the National Assembly, bracing for possible violence on an issue that galvanised the country’s faltering conservative movement.
In recent weeks, violent attacks against gay couples have spiked and some legislators have received threats — including Claude Bartelone, the Assembly president, who received a gunpowder-filled envelope on Monday.
One of the biggest protests against same-sex marriage drew together hundreds of thousands of people bused in from the French provinces — conservative activists, schoolchildren with their parents, retirees, priests, and others.
That demonstration ended in blasts of tear gas, as right-wing rabble-rousers, some in masks and hoods, led the charge against police, damaging cars along the Champs-Élysées and making a break for the presidential palace.
Christiane Taubira, the justice minister, told policymakers that the first weddings could be as soon as June.
“We believe that the first weddings will be beautiful and that they’ll bring a breeze of joy, and that those who are opposed to them today will surely be confounded when they are overcome with the happiness of the newlyweds and the families,” she said.
When Hollande promised to legalise gay marriage, it was seen as relatively uncontroversial. But the issue has become a touchstone as his popularity has sunk to unprecedented lows, largely over France’s ailing economy.
But the most visible face in the fight against gay marriage — a former comedienne who goes by the name of Frigide Barjot — said the movement, named “A Protest for Everyone”, will continue beyond the law’s passage and possibly field candidates in 2014 municipal elections.
She said anyone involved in protest violence would be marginalised, but blamed the government for its failure to listen.
“The violence comes from the way in which this was imposed,” Barjot told France Info radio.
French conservatives, decimated by infighting and the election loss of standard-bearer Nicolas Sarkozy, had found a rallying cause in same-sex marriage.
Hoping to keep the issue alive, the conservative UMP party planned to challenge the law in the Constitutional Council.
French civil unions, allowed since 1999, are at least as popular among heterosexuals as among gay and lesbian couples. But that law has no provisions for adoption, and the strongest opposition in France as far as same-sex couples goes comes when children are involved. According to recent polls, just over half of French are opposed to adoption by same-sex couples — about the same number who said they favour same-sex marriage.
Christophe Crepin, the spokesman for the police union UNSA, says the extraordinary security yesterday included a total of about 4,000 officers in the area near the National Assembly building and water cannon positioned nearby.
One group of anti-riot police swarmed the banks of the Seine River about 500m from the legislature, hours before protests were scheduled there.
France is the 14th country to legalise gay marriage. On the cover of yesterday’s Liberation newspaper, the famed gay photographers Pierre and Gilles took over the front page and several of the inside pages, splashing them with some of their most provocative photos, including one of three soccer players — nude but for the footwear — facing the camera.
In New Zealand, where gay marriage enjoys popular support, people gathered outside parliament and joined in singing a traditional Maori love ballad after a vote last week making it legal. Nine states and the District of Columbia in the US also recognise such marriages, but the federal government does not.