President Francois Hollande's government has signed off on a bill that could legalize same-sex marriage in France. The move comes as leaders from major religious groups are sharply criticizing the change.
Same-sex couples in France have been able to enter into civil unions for over a decade, but the government set a bill into motion on Wednesday that would broaden their rights. Under the proposed legislation, approved by Hollande's Cabinet, all couples would have the right to marry and to adopt children.
Hollande told Cabinet members that the bill represented "progress, not just for a few, but for all society," a government spokeswoman said to reporters after Wednesday's meeting.
The spokeswoman, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, also quoted the French president as saying that the bill "resolutely takes into account the greater interest of the child."
Hollande's 2012 campaign focused heavily on efforts to reform same-sex couples' rights. Also speaking to reporters after the Cabinet meeting, France's family minister backed the government's decision.
"This is an important step towards equality of rights," said Family Minister Dominique Bertinotti.
France's parliament is expected to vote on the bill by mid-2013.
A poll by Ifop published on Wednesday reported that 65 percent of France's population approves of the measure, with only 52 percent in favor of gay adoption. While the West European country has a long history as a Catholic nation, the majority of the population identifies as secular.
Meanwhile, domestic religious leaders and right-wing parties have strongly opposed the change to the current law.
Far-right leader Marine le Pen had already called for a referendum on the issue before the Cabinet approved the draft on Wednesday.
Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, speaking before a conference of French Catholic bishops in Lourdes last week, said the new legislation threatened to "shake one of the foundations of our society."
Jewish, Muslim and Protestant leaders have also denounced the government's efforts to broaden the rights of same-sex couples.
EU countries have different laws regarding same-sex unions, with some, like France, only allowing civil partnerships. Gay marriage has been legalized in Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Portugal.
kms/mkg (dpa, Reuters, AFP)