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There was a dramatic scene today at Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral. A far-right historian and activist shot himself to death after calling for action to - in his words - protect France's identity. He was 78-year-old Dominique Venner. And as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, he was vehemently opposed to France's new law authorizing gay marriage and adoption.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The suicide stunned Paris. Police were forced to evacuate about 1,500 people from Notre Dame Cathedral for several hours. Witnesses said Venner put a letter on the altar, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head. While neither the motive for his suicide nor the contents of his letter are yet known, Venner, a well-known opponent of the country's new gay marriage law, had blogged that dramatic action was needed to protect French identity.
Venner said, quote, "France needs spectacular, symbolic gestures to shake off the complacency and reawaken the memories of our origins." Far-right specialist Jean-Yves Camus says same-sex marriage and adoption, which became law on Sunday, has put wind in the sails of the far right.
JEAN-YVES CAMUS: (Through translator) What's going on in France is that this law has unleashed a wave of protests. It's not just the far right but also conservatives who are protesting these moral changes in society. But the whole movement is radicalizing.
BEARDSLEY: Camus says the mainstream right joined the protest movement as a way to denounce all of socialist President Francois Hollande's policies. But now it's become swept up in its virulence. The world was surprised at the strength of the opposition to gay marriage in France, as the country's conservative Catholic heartland asserted itself.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)
BEARDSLEY: The debate began peacefully. These girls sing about a child's right to a mama and a papa in a demonstration last year that brought out tens of thousands of families with children. But what Hollande considered an easy campaign promise to keep divided the country horribly over the last year and has become nasty. There is a rise in homophobic assaults, and the latest demonstrations have descended into violence as protesters fought police, who responded with tear gas.
Hollande has appealed to opponents to accept the law, but they say they will never back down. France is bracing for what are expected to be massive demonstrations against the new gay marriage law on Sunday. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.