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French watchdog says no to gay marriage

By BEN BARNIER, Associated Press

PARIS -- France's law prohibiting gay marriage does not violate the constitution, the country's top constitutional watchdog ruled Friday as it noted that parliament was free to make new laws on the subject.

That left open the option for a constitutional amendment in the future - and hope for two women who had challenged the French civil code's stipulation that marriage must be between a man and a woman.

Corinne Cestino and Sophie Hasslauer, who have lived together for 15 years and have four children, had challenged the constitutionality of France's law banning the gay marriage.

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."

"It is not up to the Constitutional Council to substitute its appreciation for that of lawmakers," the body said.

It noted that its job is to simply rule on whether a measure abides by the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the French Constitution. In this case, it ruled that the articles in question are, indeed, "in conformity with the constitution."

Cestino and Hasslauer have sought the right to wed.

"It is not so much about getting married, but about having the right to get married," Cestino, a pediatrician, said in an interview this week. "So, that is what we are asking for: Just to be able, like anyone else, to choose to get married or not."

The issue exposes a paradox in France: While the country often has an anything-goes attitude to romance and sexuality, it can be conservative with family values. The couple and advocacy group Act Up Paris hoped France would soon join European Union partners - including Spain, Belgium and Netherlands - that have legalized same-sex marriage.

Hasslauer and Cestino, who are in their 40s, in 2000 entered into a civil union known as the Civil Solidarity Pact - PACS by its French acronym - mostly useful for its tax benefits and other financial advantages.

Marriage, on the other hand, confers "the responsibility to help each other in times of sickness or financial difficulty, inheritance rights (and) the joint custody of goods - and that's without talking about the benefit for children, who are what we call 'legitimized by marriage'," the couple's lawyer Emmanuel Ludot said.

The couple had hoped that a negative decision by the Constitutional Council would force France's conservative government to sponsor a bill on gay marriage to send to parliament.

French jurisprudence does not favor same-sex marriage. A Green Party mayor in the southwestern town of Begles officiated over a wedding of two gay men in 2004 - but France's highest court later annulled the marriage.

Cecile Brisson, Angela Doland and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.

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