London: The French National Assembly has approved the most important article of a bill to legalise same-sex marriage.
Deputies voted 249-97 in favour of redefining marriage as being an agreement between two people - not just between a man and a woman, reports the BBC.
The bill marks one of France`s biggest social reforms since the abolition of the death penalty in 1981.
President Francois Hollande`s Socialists and their left-wing supporters backed it, opposed by many opposition UMP and centrist MPs.
The proposals have generated protests and counter-protests for months.
Opinion polls suggest that around 55-60 percent of French people support gay marriage, though only about 50 percent approve of gay adoption.
Debates are expected to go on for more than a week, as MPs discuss hundreds of amendments, most of them filed by the centre-right opposition.
On the way they are expected to approve the other key measure in the bill, which would allow gay couples to adopt children.
Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said they are proud to have taken this first step. Taubira said they would establish the freedom for everyone to choose his or her partner for a future together.
UMP MP Philippe Gosselin said the legislation was only the beginning of a trend that the French people did not want.
It is expected that the legislation will reach the statute books by the middle of the year. The debate in the National Assembly is due to last throughout the weekend.