The debate over whether society and science are overreaching when it comes to parenthood has sent thousands into the streets, turned the bridges over the Seine into billboards and prompted charges that women's bodies will soon be for rent in a society that still has surprisingly deep conservative roots.
President Francois Hollande's promise to legalize gay marriage was seen as relatively uncontroversial when it first came up as a campaign pledge. Then, as the debate began this week, his justice minister quietly issued an order to grant French birth certificates for children born to surrogates abroad.
The news reopened a raw and unwelcome national debate on fertility treatments, surrogacy and adoption. Assisted reproduction is off-limits to all but heterosexual couples showing at least two years of companionship. Egg donation has been regulated nearly into non-existence, and surrogacy of any kind is punishable by a prison term.
Infuriated opponents pounced, accusing the Socialist government of underhanded tactics to transform families. Despite France's liberal attitudes and Socialist government, the country also has strong Roman Catholic influence and prides itself on its strong support for traditional families.
Justice Minister Christiane Taubira went before a raucous parliamentary session Wednesday to defend her order, half the lawmakers giving her an ovation and another sizeable group trying to jeer her into silence.
"You're encouraging methods that are illegal in our country, that are an attack on human dignity," Jean-Francois Cope, the opposition leader, accused her on Wednesday. "Children become objects, objects that can be bought and sold."
Taubira said the order was only a reflection of current citizenship law, not a new regulation that would lead to legalized surrogacy within France. "It affirms French nationality, it doesn't grant it," she said, insisting that no one — from the president on down — wanted French surrogate mothers.
Facing unexpected opposition to their once-popular plans to legalize gay marriage, Hollande's Socialists in early January dropped plans to link the measure to relaxed restrictions on fertility treatments. And Taubira on Wednesday reiterated earlier denials of any plan to legalize surrogacy.
About 200 egg-donor babies and about 1,000 sperm-donor babies are born annually to French people according to official government figures, with thousands of couples waiting for years for a chance to try.
In France, egg donors must already have children of their own and are not allowed reimbursement for many of the expenses related to the donation — including travel and childcare. Sperm donors face similar restrictions, including showing proof of prior fatherhood. In 2010, 299 men donated sperm in France.
Surrogacy is widely reviled, even among those who want to open access to fertility treatments.
The tight restrictions have sent many French abroad — single women and men, and gay and straight couples who fear their time is running out. Many go to Belgium or Spain. Fearing social stigma, few talk about it when they return home pregnant.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters on both sides have swamped the streets of Paris. This week, as the parliamentary debate began, opponents of gay marriage and changes to the law governing fertility treatment strung banners over the bridges that cross the Seine, including one that read "Everyone is born from a man and a woman."
Hollande had clearly hoped to put off a national debate on assisted reproduction: "Had I been in favour, I would have included it in the proposed law," he said in December as renegade lawmakers from his Socialist Party tried to take up the issue.
The president has let Taubira do most of the talking — and take most of the heat. It's her name that is linked to the tensions that have been growing in France as both sides line up allies.
For those who support easier access to assisted reproduction, the link to gay marriage was inevitable — especially in a country where the word "equality" is enshrined in the national motto.
"As soon as you start discussing same-sex marriage, then you know this is going to come up," said Guido Pennings, a professor of bioethics at Belgium's Ghent University who conducted a 2010 survey on what he described as "reproductive tourism" in Europe.
Pennings said women from Italy, France, Germany and Norway — all relatively restrictive countries when it comes to fertility treatments — were most likely to cite "legal reasons" for going abroad. Four in 10 of the French women who responded to the survey described themselves as gay or bisexual.
He said governments should be asking themselves: "Do I treat my own citizens correctly when I force them to go elsewhere?"
Isabelle Chandler, spokeswoman for the French infertility group MAIA, said French women are being driven away by the strict criteria and a lack of financial support. Chandler, who like many French draws the line at surrogacy, said her organization is willing to advise any woman who wants fertility treatment, whether or not she's in a relationship.
For both men and women donors, anonymity is strictly required — another aspect of fertility treatment that sends French couples abroad, according to some activists.
"Lawmakers think about couples, they think about donors, but they don't think about children," said Audrey Gavin, a lawyer who is president of an organization that advocates for non-anonymous donation. She hoped that the debate on gay marriage might open minds to reconsider France's entire approach to fertility treatment.
Olivier Dussopt, a Socialist lawmaker who was among the group to first attempt to relax the laws governing fertility treatments, said he thinks France will come around to his way of thinking for assisted reproduction, although he said surrogacy remained completely off the table "for both the right and the left."
Dussopt compared the current debate to the bitter period leading up to the decision to legalize abortion in 1975. Now, he said, abortion is essentially a non-issue in France.
"There's a form of social conservatism even in a liberal society," he said. "When it's a social question, France can seem split in two. Once it's resolved, it goes just fine."