PARIS - France's President Francois Hollande has weighed this weekend into the war of words between his government and the Catholic Church over holding discussions in schools on the planned legalisation of same-sex marriage.
He defended Education Minister Vincent Peillon on Saturday for urging Catholic schools, which teach about one-fifth of all pupils in France, to stay neutral in the debate.
Peillon's supporters and critics dominated the headlines and airwaves on Sunday, a week before a Church-backed protest in Paris that organisers say could draw as many as half a million people opposed to any change in traditional marriage.
The shrill polemics could not drown out another big news story, the growing unpopularity of Hollande and his government. One poll said 75 percent of voters doubt he can keep a New Year's promise to turn around rising unemployment this year.
Laurent Wauquiez, a former conservative higher education minister, slammed Peillon for implying that Catholic opposition to the reform was responsible for suicides of gay teenagers.
"This is a big political manipulation," he said.
Conservatives also cried foul because government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem was filmed in a state school last October praising the marriage reform as progress towards more freedom.
Opinion polls show up to 60 percent of the French back same-sex marriage, which the government plans to legalise by June, and just under 50 percent support adoption rights for gays.
A new poll said 69 percent wanted a referendum on the issue, which all main religions here - Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Jewish and Orthodox Christian - have opposed.
SECULAR RALLYING CRY
Peillon triggered the row by saying the director of Catholic education system, heavily subsidised by the state, was wrong to urge his schools to discuss same-sex marriage with pupils.
"This education system, which is under contract to the state, should respect the principle of neutrality and the freedom of conscience of all," he stated in a letter to regional education officials who oversee both state and private schools.
These officials should scrutinise the Catholic debates and report any anti-gay views aired in them, Peillon said, urging extreme caution on this issue because young homosexuals were five times more prone to suicide than heterosexual youths.
Hollande backed him in the name of "laicite", the legal separation of church and state that is a secular rallying cry for French opposed to any religion in the public sphere.
"Laicite is a principle of the Republic," he said.
Religious leaders have encouraged people to join next Sunday's protest but most will not march themselves.
Opponents of the new law caught its supporters off guard in November when they brought about 100,000 out in Paris for what was meant as a warm-up to the protest in a week's time.
The protest will converge on the Eiffel Tower and include people from all over France, organisers said.
Although few in traditionally Catholic France attend Mass on Sunday, the Church can still rally crowds larger than most political protests when its core interests are threatened.
Passing the law would make France the 12th country around the world to legalise same-sex marriage. It is already allowed in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden.
In the United States, Washington, D.C. and nine states have legalised it, three of them in last November's elections. (Editing by Louise Ireland)