The National Assembly in France has overwhelmingly approved the first and most important article of a law that will allow gay couples to marry and adopt children.
Deputies voted 249 to 97 on Saturday in favour of article one of draft legislation which redefines marriage as being an agreement between two people rather than necessarily between a man and a woman.
"We are happy and proud to have taken this first step," Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said. "We are going to establish the freedom for everyone to choose his or her partner for a future together."
Opinion polls suggest a majority of French voters support the right of gay couples to wed. A narrower majority favour gays being granted the right to adopt as couples; gay men and women can already adopt as individuals if approved by social services.
Massive demonstrations across the country have underlined that those who oppose gay marriage feel very strongly about the issue and President Francois Hollande has been accused of pushing the legislation through without proper consultation.
The Catholic church is heavily involved in mobilising opposition and more protests were scheduled on Saturday in towns and cities across France.
A final vote is scheduled for 12 February.