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PARIS (Reuters) - France's ban on same-sex marriages was upheld by the country's constitutional authority on Friday, in a ruling that relieves the government of any obligation to grant gays the wedding rights enjoyed by heterosexuals.
A handful of countries in Europe allow couples of the same sex to wed, and rights campaigners had hoped for a breakthrough in France, where two women living together had demanded the view of the Constitutional Council.
The Council said it found no conflict between the law as it stands and fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution.
It ruled that it was up to parliament, rather than the constitutional authorities, to decide whether the law should change.
The two women who appealed to the Council live with four children, three of them conceived through artificial insemination.
Henri Guiano, an adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy, said shortly before the verdict was made public that the matter was one for political leaders and not lawyers, signalling that nothing should change without in-depth political debate.
"This is a question of society, of civilisation even," said Guiano. "This is a matter that could maybe be broached during the presidential election campaign, by parliamentary debate, but not just for the law," he told LCI television.
An opinion poll published as the verdict emerged on Friday suggested views had changed radically in the past five years and that a majority now accept the idea of same-sex marriage.
The results of the survey by TNS Sofres showed 51 percent of respondents in favour of gay marriage and 35 percent against. In 2006, the agency reported 51 percent opposition and 45 percent support.
A lawyer for the two women behind the case said politicians should accept the shift in public opinion and change the law rapidly. "France is seizing up, dozing off, no longer the beacon of human rights on this planet," said lawyer Emmanuel Ludot.
France has allowed civil unions between people of the same sex since 1999, but that status confers fewer rights than marriage proper.
Two men married in 2004 but the marriage was rapidly annulled by a court and the mayor who had presided over the wedding was suspended, in a case that led to wider debate.
Same-sex marriage is permitted in Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Spain, according to the Council of Europe.
It is also permitted in South Africa, Argentina, Canada and in some U.S. states.
Reporting by Brian Love, Emile Picy and Patrick Vignal, editing by Tim Pearce