PARIS -- France legalized gay marriage Tuesday after a wrenching national debate that exposed deep conservatism in the nation's heartland and triggered huge demonstrations that tapped into intense discontent with the Socialist government. Within hours, fiery clashes broke out between protesters and riot police.
Legions of officers stayed late into the night, and a protest against the measure turned violent near the Invalides complex of museums and monuments. Protesters threw glass bottles, cans and metal bars at police, who responded with tear gas.
It was an issue that galvanized the country's faltering right, which had been decimated by infighting and their election loss to President Francois Hollande. France is the 14th country to legalize gay marriage nationwide --and the most populous.
The measure passed easily in the Socialist-majority Assembly, 331-225, just after the president of the legislative body expelled a disruptive protester in pink, the color adopted by French opponents of gay marriage.
Justice Minister Christiane Taubira told lawmakers 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.
Earlier in the day, there appeared to be more police than protesters outside the Parliament building on Paris' Left Bank, but that calculation soon shifted as night fell, and thousands gathered to protest the bill. The protest dwindled to a few stalwarts shortly before midnight, when the violence began among a few hundred demonstrators, including some who carried signs saying "Socialist dictatorship."
Claire Baron, 41, a mother of two, said she "will oppose the bill until the end. I'll keep going to the protests; I don't give in. The bill is not effective yet, the president of the Republic must listen to our voices. We are here to defend family values. Children need a mom and a dad," she said.
In recent weeks, violent attacks against gay couples have spiked, and some legislators have received threats -- including Claude Bartelone, the Assembly president, who got a gunpowder-filled envelope Monday.
Following the vote, members of the gay and lesbian community flocked to a square in central Paris, just behind City Hall, to celebrate the vote. "I feel immense joy, gigantic joy," said 39-year old Sylvain Rouzel. "At last, everyone has the same rights. This is huge! France was lagging behind. We had to wait 14 years after the civil union to finally obtain the right to get married, with equal rights for everyone. I feel great!"
Paris' openly gay mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, was among the crowd of hundreds gathered for the street celebration in the Marais, the city's historic gay neighborhood.
When Mr. Hollande promised to legalize gay marriage, it was seen as relatively uncontroversial. The issue has become a touchstone as his popularity has sunk to unprecedented lows, largely over France's ailing economy.