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France to hold its first same-sex wedding

PARIS -- France will mark its first gay marriage Wednesday after months of often bitter debate and violent protest that have divided the nation.

In what is expected to be a simple ceremony, billed by the French media as the "marriage of the century," Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau will make Gallic history.

The town hall in the southern French city of Montpellier, where the local mayor presides over civil unions, is not big enough for the 200 friends and family invited along with 300 gay activists, more than 100 journalists from around the world -- who are required to have obtained special accreditation to attend -- and a government minister. The event has been moved to a local function hall instead.

Autin, 40, a gay-rights campaigner who works in the Montpellier tourist office, and Boileau, 30, a civil servant, published their declaration to marry and organized the ceremony immediately after legislation known as the "marriage for all" bill became law here 10 days ago. The pair have been living together for seven years and had long planned to be the first gay couple to marry when the law was passed, which made France the 14th country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.

The law, a key social reform in Socialist President Francois Hollande's 2012 election campaign, also allows gay and lesbian couples to adopt children, something Autin and Boileau have said they plan to do.

But opponents of same-sex marriage have brought parts of French cities to a standstill over recent months with street demonstrations against the measure. At the most recent protest last Sunday, attended by more than 150,000 people after the bill had already been signed into law, clashes with police resulted in 293 arrests.

On May 21, a well-known right-wing historian and essayist, Dominique Venner, who had described the law allowing same-sex marriage and adoption as "detestable," died after shooting himself inside Paris' famed Notre Dame Cathedral, which was full of tourists and worshipers. In a letter he placed on the altar before pulling out a gun, the 78-year-old Venner wrote: "I offer what remains of my life in an act of protest."

Extra police will be on hand in Montpellier for Autin and Boileau's marriage, which is set to take place at 5:30 p.m. local time. Helene Mandroux, the Socialist mayor who will conduct the ceremony, told journalists that she had been advised by one anonymous caller to "get bodyguards."

Boileau told Le Point magazine that the aim of the couple's high-profile nuptials was the message of "equality for all, that everyone can marry in their town."

Mandroux told the Nouvel Observateur magazine that the marriage was "not a political act."

"The union of Vincent and Bruno is bringing a major advance for society," the mayor said. "A major discrimination is disappearing. Vincent Autin says it's the victory of love over hate, and I can only agree."

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