– The Associated Press

PARIS – France legalized gay marriage on Tuesday after a wrenching national debate that has exposed deep conservatism in the nation’s heartland and triggered huge protests that tapped into deep discontent with the Socialist government.

Legions of officers with water cannons braced outside the National Assembly for violence that had not come by late evening. The protests against the measure included thousands but were peaceful. Other gatherings were simply celebrations.

But it was an issue that galvanized the country’s faltering right, which had been decimated by infighting and their election loss to President Francois Hollande.

The measure passed easily in the Socialist-majority Assembly, 331-225, just minutes after the president of the legislative body expelled a disruptive protester in pink, the color adopted by French opponents of gay marriage.

Justice Minister Christiane Taubira told lawmakers that the first weddings could be as soon as June.

“We believe that the first weddings will be beautiful and that they’ll bring a breeze of joy, and that those who are opposed to them today will surely be confounded when they are overcome with the happiness of the newlyweds and the families,” she said.

Outside the Parliament building on Paris’ Left Bank there appeared to be more police than protestors.

Claire Baron, 41, a mother of two, said that she “will oppose the bill until the end.”

“I’ll keep going to the protests, I don’t give in. We are here to defend family values. Children need a mom and a dad,” Baron said.

In recent weeks, violent attacks against gay couples have spiked and some legislators have received threats.One of the biggest protests against same-sex marriage drew hundreds of thousands of people from the French provinces. That demonstration ended in blasts of tear gas, as right-wing rabble-rousersled the charge against police, damaging cars along the Champs-Elysees avenue and making a break for the presidential palace.

Following the vote members of the gay and lesbian community flocked to a square in central Paris, just behind City Hall, to celebrate the vote.

“I feel immense joy, gigantic joy,” said 39-year old Sylvain Rouzel, “at last, everyone has the same rights. This is huge!”