Updated Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 09:50 AM
PARIS — The French Cabinet approved a draft bill legalizing same-sex marriage Wednesday after weeks of loud opposition, especially from religious figures and the political right.
During his successful campaign for president, François Hollande promised to legalize same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, he said the measure represented "progress for all of society." Hollande and his Socialist Party have a majority in both houses of Parliament, and the bill is expected to pass sometime early next year.
The Cabinet decision came a day after several U.S. states, including Washington, approved same-sex-marriage measures in a popular vote. Also Tuesday, Spain's highest court upheld that country's law allowing same-sex marriage seven years after it was passed and after more than 21,000 same-sex couples had married.
The draft law redefines marriage to stipulate that it is "contracted between two persons of different sex or of the same sex," and the words "father and "mother" in existing legislation are replaced by "parents." The bill would also allow married gay couples to adopt children.
Christiane Taubira, the justice minister, told the conservative newspaper La Croix that "marriage for all," as the government calls it, was a response to "a demand for equality."
But the move to legalize same-sex marriage has been controversial, and the bill was subject to delays in a country where only married couples can adopt. Opinion polls indicate that a majority of the French support gay marriage, but only half approve allowing gays to adopt.
On Wednesday, Serge Dassault, an influential senator from the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, the party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, said the bill represented "the end of the family, the end of children's development, the end of education." He called it "an enormous danger to the nation."
Dominique Bertinotti, the minister of family affairs, rejected that criticism, saying, "On the contrary, it is a legal protection."
If the French bill passes, France will become the 12th country, including Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Spain and Sweden, to make its marriage laws "gender neutral." In Germany, registered same-sex couples have essentially the same legal rights as married heterosexual couples, but same-sex marriage is not legal.
Last month, several hundred people demonstrated against the bill in several cities across France, including Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Lille, emphasizing their opposition to the adoption of children by gays.
The most virulent opposition has come from religious leaders, with Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Paris, calling it an act of "deception." In a speech before 120 bishops in Lourdes on Saturday, the cardinal said the law would establish "the marriage of a few imposed on everyone."
CHRISTOPHE ENA / AP
In this Monday, Oct. 22 photo, Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, right, who married his live-in partner Qiyaammudeen Jantjies, left, in South Africa, where gay marriage is recognized, during an interview in Sevran, outside Paris.