PARIS — Paris' mayor is openly gay. Personalities like the longtime lover of late fashion guru Yves Saint Laurent play high-profile roles in French society. Gay rights groups are as vocal as they come in France.
But the country whose motto is "Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite" and whose name rhymes with romance hasn't given the love and commitment of same-sex couples an equal legal standing to that of heterosexuals.
An ongoing debate over the issue is now gathering steam.
A trigger point came on Friday when the Constitutional Court – an esteemed body that counts former Presidents Jacques Chirac and Valery Giscard d'Estaing as members – ruled that laws banning gay marriage don't violate the constitution. They said any change is for parliament to decide.
Supporters of same-sex marriage say France is behind the curve of societal change, and playing catch-up to other European nations that already legalized it: the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Portugal and Iceland.
Even without the legal right to the word "married," same-sex couples don't enjoy equal rights in France. They can form civil unions, but those do not confer inheritance rights or joint custody of goods, among other things.
In its decision, the council noted that lawmakers had agreed that the "difference in situations of same-sex couples and couples made up of a man and a woman can justify a difference in treatment concerning family rights."
The ruling puts the issue at the doorstep of the governing conservatives of unpopular President Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of presidential and legislative elections next year. A poll released Friday shows growing public support for the idea of gay marriage – and the leftist opposition immediately pounced.
The Communist Party criticized the ruling, saying "France has retained its dunce cap over the right for people of the same sex to marry, when many other European countries remedied this inequality a long time ago."
Some countered that legal tradition in France, which also has a solid strain of family-values supporters, was upheld.
"We can only hail this decision, which respects our political-judicial tradition," said Christine Boutin, head of the small Christian-Democratic party. "The right to marry for homosexual couples would only be the first step before adoption follows."
Gay rights groups say "Le Coming-Out" is making progress, crediting improving media coverage and role models like Mayor Bertrand Delanoe of Paris, who came out publicly years ago. Pierre Berge, the longtime partner of Yves Saint Laurent, cultivates a high-profile as an activist and philanthropist and recently became a co-owner of top-drawer daily Le Monde.
But "coming out of the closet" is always "a personal decision," said Stephane Corbin, a spokesman for Federation LGBT. In a statement Friday, the advocacy group said its members "plan not to be sub-citizens any more."
Even Boutin, long a bete-noire for gay-rights groups, has "eased up" on her positions on issues of homosexuality over the years, Corbin said.
Gone are the days during the social upheaval of 1968, when gays in France opposed marriage as a "bourgeois" institution – now, they simply want to enjoy the same rights as everybody else, he said.
The LGBT is one of an array of gay rights groups in activism-friendly France, whose foot soldiers waved placards and shouted slogans outside the Constitutional Council office when the ruling came down Friday.
"The Constitutional Council missed its date with history," the Association of Gay and Lesbian Parents and Future Parents in a statement said. "It has punted the job of changing the law to the lawmaker."
Emblematic of the dangers gays still face in France, hours after the council's ruling, a court east of Paris was handing down its verdict against four men on trial for attempted murder and "barbarity and torture" against Bruno Wiel, whom they allegedly lured into a hotel room after he left a gay bar in Paris in 2006, an attack that prosecutors called a homophobic crime. Wiel was beaten, stabbed with a lit cigarette, and sodomized with a stick.
The appeal to the council was brought by Corinne Cestino and Sophie Hasslauer, who have lived together for 15 years, have four kids and want the right to wed. They challenged the constitutionality of the civil code's stipulation that marriage must be between a man and a woman.
Cestino, speaking on France-Info radio, acknowledged the ruling was "clearly a big disappointment."
"French society is ready (for gay marriage)," she said. "The block rests with politician."
Polls suggest she is right. A poll published Friday by Canal Plus TV found 58 percent of respondents believe gays should be able to marry – a double-digit percentage point increase from a similar poll five years ago – while 35 percent believe they should not.
Against the backdrop of such figures, Corbin said his group is looking forward to the election-year debate.
"We are far from the end, but the fight is continuing," he said, "and 2012 is going to be the culmination."
Sophie Tetrel and Catherine Gaschka contributed to this report.