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Few here regularly attend church yet listening to the protests against gay marriage one hears an underlying religious message

In all the villages within a 20-mile radius of me, I have not met one gay French man or woman.

To my knowledge, that is, which is normally spot-on. Actually, that is wrong. Being spot-on is a lie. When young, I was once the object of a now-famous woman's pursuit and returned to my office to say, naively, I found it quite bizarre and extremely disturbing that she spoke to me in a manner that suggested a man on the make.

I truly was baffled. My guffawing colleagues, who had watched it all from the sidelines in the pub where we had spent our break, enlightened me. To be fair I was young and innocent.

Perhaps, then, I should more correctly say I haven't met an openly, obviously gay man or woman. That could be because I do not have a wide spread of French friends. But when I ask my rural French friends and acquaintances how many gays they know, they shrug and say none.

It's not done in a shock, horror sense of "such people do not exist"; merely a "nope, not met one", "none around here" kind of way. Casual. Accepting. There is no censure, merely a surprised indifference.

Perhaps that can explain the absence: rather than being the only gay in villages where boar-hunt blooding is de rigueur, they take themselves off to the big cities as soon as they can.

Yet the gay British and Dutch men I do know tell me that although we live in one of the most deeply conservative parts of the country, they have never encountered any form of prejudice.

They, like me, put it down to the very different French attitude to both sex and relationships, a live-and-let live attitude as to what people do behind closed doors, a Gallic shrug indicating wherever love is to be found can only be good.

However, the headlines of the past fortnight have firmly knocked such perceived laissez-faire views on the head. More or less simultaneously, the UK and French parliaments have been debating whether to allow marriage between the same sexes.

The UK has taken the first step to allow such unions in England and Wales, without any serious disruption in the streets surrounding the Palace of Westminster. That first stage took just two days and in most newspapers didn't even merit positioning as the lead story.

In France, where the debate is now coming to an end after thousands of delaying amendments and weeks of discussions, there have been major public objections to such a suggestion.

Hundreds of thousands have marched frequently in opposition, in spite of polls that suggested as many as 60% of French were in favour.

However, other polls state 50% against adoption by gay couples even if same-sex marriage goes through, as seems a given regardless of the opposition.

Many churchmen have pushed the strict separation of State and religion to the limit, arguing against the bill in front of their congregations with a vehemence not seen in years.

Though the French are nominally Catholic, few regularly attend church or require their children to be brought up in the tenets of the faith.

Yet listening to the protests against gay marriage on TV and radio, one hears an underlying religious message – that marriage is a sacrament between God, man and woman for the procreation of children. Not man and man, woman and woman.

The outcry has baffled the Paris-based intelligentsia who ask with some incredulity: is Britain more open than France to accept such a big change to society?

Yesterday, faced with the paradox of indifference and passion, I made some calls in my own poll of the French I know. To my amazement I discovered that hundreds all around here took coaches and trains up to Paris to make their opposition known.

Many had been organised by their parish priests but others had tagged along with no such affiliation. It helps of course that, being France, one gets a reduced rate on public transport if attending a strike or a demo.

On checking local newspapers who interviewed many of them, the issue was not homosexuality per se – it was legally-binding marriage.

It was pointed out that France has already in place civil agreements, which give rights and protection to all unwedded couples, including same-sex ones, and had for years before the UK brought in civil partnership.

As in the UK, more and more French couples are choosing not to marry. Even among many of the older generation around me, their second, even third unions are sans marriage.

In the end I suspect that although fiercely proud of being a nation that claims to uphold the rights of the individual, when it comes to major change the old bourgeois values bubble through.

Unless something very dramatic has happened, the bill will have passed through this weekend.

The demonstrators will pack up their banners happy that once more they have shown government not to take their support for granted.

All is in the protest, not the result. Now, that IS the French way.

cookfidelma@hotmail.com

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