Protesters held as French gay marriage bill brought forward

(Photo: Reuters / Christian Hartmann)Protesters attend a prayer staged by Christian fundamentalists from the Civitas Institute as they demonstrates against gay marriage, adoption and procreation assistance outside the Senate building in Paris, April 4, 2013. The French Senate took its first look on Thursday at controversial gay marriage bill, which gives homosexual couples the right to marry and adopt children. The bill has passed in the lower house but divided society, as opponents clamored for a referendum.

PARIS (Reuters) - French police arrested dozens of protesters against same-sex marriage Monday as left-wing lawmakers brought forward the deadline for the adoption of a law that will allow gays to tie the knot.

One of France's most important social reforms since the abolition of the death penalty in 1981 has majority backing in opinion polls but opponents have grown increasingly vocal as legislation edges towards approval in the Socialist-controlled parliament.

Around 70 people were arrested early on Monday and placed in custody after they tried to set up a campsite outside the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, near the banks of the Seine river, a police official said.

Another 19 protesters were stopped by police for identity checks late on Sunday as they waited for Interior Minister Manuel Valls to leave a concert hall in the capital.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken part in a string of demonstrations for and against the reform bill since it was floated last year.

Opponents in the majority Catholic country comprise a mix of Catholic hardliners, social conservatives, French Muslims and evangelical Christians.

The government sped up the approval process with a decision on Monday to call a final vote on the gay marriage legislation on April 23, weeks earlier than initially planned, according to a parliamentary source.

The Senate upper house of parliament, which like the National Assembly is under left-wing control, backed the bill last week, after which a final parliamentary vote was slated to take place in late May.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called for restraint after a demonstration last week in Paris's Latin Quarter where riot police used tear gas to disperse protesters.

If the reform, an election promise by President Francois Hollande, goes onto the statute books within months as expected, France will join 11 other countries including Belgium, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Norway and South Africa where same-sex marriage is legal.

(Reporting by Marine Pennetier and Chine Labbe; Writing by Brian Love; editing by Mike Collett-White)