A controversial measure to give legal status to unmarried couples and homosexuals has finally reached France's National Assembly after 10 years of heated debate and opposition from religious groups.

French lawmakers begin debate Friday on the Civil Solidarity Pact, which would grant fiscal and social benefits to homosexual couples who live together and unwed heterosexual couples.The measure is almost certain to pass the National Assembly, where the left holds a strong majority.

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin sought to calm debate on the bill, which is sponsored by deputies of his Socialist Party.

"If there were not so much passion, I think we would have advanced with much less trouble," said Jospin in an interview on state-run television. "Opponents are creating problems where there are none."

Homosexual couples would still be forbidden to have children, either using artificial means or through adoption, Jospin said.

"Marriage is an institution . . . and will remain so," he said. "Adoption (by homosexuals) is forbidden and will remain so."

Roman Catholic, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders have spoken out against the proposed measure, along with rightist politicians and various associations that advocate for the family or against abortion.

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They all fear such a law would diminish marriage by giving the state's blessing to all sorts of unions.

Conservative lawmaker Etienne Pinte, echoing other opponents, said he believes the legislation "will upset the equilibrium of society which for thousands of years has been based on the family. And the family is a father and a mother."

But for Jospin, the bill simply "takes into account the evolution of society."

In France, some 4.4 million heterosexual unmarried couples live together. The number of homosexual couples is not known.

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