France's leading Roman Catholic prelate said on Saturday a government plan to legalise same-sex marriage would profoundly affect the equilibrium of French society, calling it a reform for the few not the many.
Speaking in the pilgrimage town of Lourdes, Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois urged Catholics to show their opposition to a planned marriage reform by writing and speaking to their elected officials and through other "democratic means of expression".
His call to action, announced at an annual plenary meeting of the country's Catholic bishops, came as President Francois Hollande's left-wing government prepared to present its draft bill on gay marriage in cabinet next Wednesday.
French faith leaders - mostly Catholic, but also Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and Orthodox Christian - and conservative politicians have mobilised against the law, especially against its provision to allow gay couples to adopt children.
"The presidential and legislative elections (earlier this year) did not give them carte blanche, especially not for reforms that very profoundly affect the equilibrium of our society," said Vingt-Trois, who called the planned reform "a fraud".
"It will not be 'marriage for all'," he said, citing the slogan of the pro-reform campaign, "it will be the marriage of a few imposed on all".
Opinion polls say voter support for same-sex matrimony has slipped several points to under 60% and to under 50% for gay adoption as the opposition has ratcheted up its campaign since last summer. A BVA survey published by Le Parisien newspaper on Saturday said this was the first fall in support after a decade of rising acceptance for the two reforms.
"Opinion trends on the subject are clearly on the retreat," it said. Vingt-Trois did not openly call for street protests against the law, which is due to be debated in parliament in the first half of next year, though his reference to "democratic means of expression" might be taken to signal tacit approval of them. Lay Catholic groups organised protests in 75 cities around France last month and plan more in mid-November.
The Church could organise a large demonstration but is wary of adopting too prominent a role in an emotional political debate.
Some conservative politicians have spoken out in favour of a large street protest in Paris and some mayors, the main officials who celebrate civil marriages, have said they would not preside over ceremonies for gay couples.
Addressing parliamentarians, the cardinal said they should be able to vote on the law according to their consciences. "We appeal to their sense of the common good, which cannot be reduced to the sum of particular interests," he said.
Vingt-Trois accused the government of trying to rush through the marriage reform without a broad debate in French society about its implications, especially for children who would grow up without a clearly identified mother and father.
"Has it asked citizens if they agreed to no longer be the father or mother of their child, but only an undifferentiated 'parent A' or 'parent B'?" he asked, referring to a proposal to make references to parents gender-neutral on birth certificates. Reacting to growing criticism, the government has scheduled longer parliamentary hearings on the bill than first planned but still aims to pass the reform by mid-2013. If the law passes, France - a traditionally Catholic society where churchgoers are now a single-digit minority - would become the 12th country in the world to allow same-sex marriage. It legalised gender-neutral civil unions in 1999 and almost as many are contracted every year as traditional marriages. But only four percent of those are among same-sex couples.