PARIS -- A plan to legalize same-sex marriage and allow gay couples to adopt was a liberal cornerstone of Francois Hollande's election manifesto earlier this year. It looked like a shoo-in for the French President, supported by a majority of the country, and an easy way to break with his conservative predecessor. But that was then.
Now, as the Socialist government prepares to unveil its draft "marriage for everyone" law Wednesday, polls show wavering support for the idea and for the president himself amid increasingly vocal opposition in this majority Catholic country.
And it's not just religious and rural leaders speaking out; top figures within Hollande's own party also are at loggerheads over the plan. The Socialists are now dragging their feet, releasing the bill later than planned and delaying parliamentary debate on it until January.
The political hot potato has exposed divisions between urban France, where homosexuality is widely accepted, and the rural heartland, where conservative attitudes hold sway.
Unusually for this strictly secular country, it has also brought religious views to the foreground. Most French people identify as Catholic even if only a minority attend church. Archbishop Andre Vingt-Trois made it a point to defend heterosexual parents Sunday in a homily at the pilgrimage site in Lourdes in southern France. The pope weighed in last month, urging French bishops to oppose the bill, and France's chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim joined other religious leaders in his opposition.
Right-wing opposition to full-fledged gay marriage in France has generally centered on the impact on the traditional family. But some have been more strident.
One prominent Paris official warned that recognizing gay marriage could lead to legalizing polygamy, pedophilia and incest. Francois Lebel's comments drew particular attention, and condemnation, because he oversees the neighborhood that includes the presidential palace and he officiated at former President Nicolas Sarkozy's marriage to ex-supermodel Carla Bruni.
Attracting equal controversy, Christian Democrat Party leader Christine Boutin -- who brandished a Bible in France's National Assembly in 1998 to protest gay civil unions -- has said the law could open the floodgates to moral decline.
"(Back in 1998) I said that civil unions would lead to gay marriage. Everyone said: 'Never. Not at all!' (But) it's just the natural direction. The logic of the situation is, that if we've got marriage (for all), we'll move toward polygamy. Why is it so shocking to predict this?"
France has allowed civil unions since 1999, and while they were initially seen as for gay or lesbian couples, they have proved hugely popular among heterosexuals, too. France would become the 12th country in the world -- and the biggest so far in terms of economic and diplomatic influence, -- to legalize same-sex marriage if the bill passes.
Meanwhile, two prominent conservatives with presidential ambitions are railing against gay marriage as they compete for the leadership of the main opposition party, the UMP. Jean-Francois Cope is calling for mass protests against the Socialists' plans, and Francois Fillon suggested he would seek to reverse the law if he's elected leader.
All the noise appears to be eroding support for same-sex rights and suggests the bill will be diluted or modified before it reaches a vote. Polls generally still show a majority favor gay marriage, though to a declining degree. And a recent poll by Ifop showed less than half now favor gay adoption, down from more than half in previous polls.
Gay couples recognize that it's an issue that is bound to provoke controversy on the country's right, but they remain optimistic that a law will come to pass -- pointing out that most French have a much more liberal attitude than many anti-gay voices quoted in the press.
Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, who married his live-in partner Qiyaammudeen Jantjies in South Africa, where gay marriage is recognized, is already seeking instruction from his local town council to get his marriage recognized in France as soon as he can.
"The population's already accepted that there are homo-parental families, that there are homosexual couples, and that in fact (France is) very late," Zahed said. "I think that a large majority of the population has acknowledged that we are lagging in France on these issues."
"It's encouraging that the majority of the country backs gay marriage," said the gay rights group Act Up. "We've won this -- as a result of decades of fighting. But it also makes the trepidation and hesitation of the government even harder to believe, and this critical stage. Why do they lack the moral courage here?"
The proposed law is of great symbolic importance for Hollande, whose personal popularity is in decline and who says legalizing gay marriage and adoption is one of the things he wants to accomplish in his first year in office. But it is escalating into one of the most divisive issues in recent time, with splits even within his party's ranks.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has favored a minimalist law that would exclude access to medically assisted procreation such as in vitro fertilization. The parliamentary leader, Socialist Bruno Le Roux, has criticized the premier's cautious stance and will present an amendment allowing gay couples the right to such procedures.
Many have taken their protests to the streets.
"We're against (this law) in the name of the rights of the children because we want to protect the children against missing out unfairly on a daddy or a mommy," said Tugdual Derville, general director of Alliance Vita, an association of conservative groups, who staged demonstrations last week in cities around France.
Everyone, it seems, has an opinion. Even the politically neutral state child benefits agency has weighed in, criticizing the plan to scrap entries for "father" and "mother" in official records, replaced by "parent 1" and "parent 2".
The most vocal opposition is coming from rural France, where leaders from right and left are campaigning for a "conscience clause," which would allow mayors the right to refuse to perform same-sex marriages. Some 1,200 French mayors and their deputies have signed a petition protesting the law. But though they are protesting loudly, this figure represents just a small minority of the 150,000 mayors and deputies in France. Indeed, elsewhere, some mayors are in favor, and vociferously so. One mayor in Hantay, northern France, is even going so far as to plan a gay marriage on Nov. 10 -- months before a bill could ever come into law.
After the draft law is presented to Wednesday's Cabinet meeting, it goes to the National Assembly for debate in January. Socialists hope that the absolute majority they won in June's parliamentary elections will be enough to push it through.