The French National Assembly has easily approved the most critical article of a proposed gay marriage bill.

According to the BBC, deputies voted 249-97 in favor of expanding marriage to include gay and lesbian couples.

The Socialist government of Francois Hollande and its coalition supporters backed the proposal. Opposition came mainly from the conservative UMP Party.

Hollande campaigned on the pledge to reform marriage.

The debate on whether France should join the 11 nations which have legalized gay nuptials has largely taken place on the streets of Paris, where hundreds of thousands of people have marched in protests and counter-protests.

Hundreds of other amendments to the bill, most of them filed by opponents, will be debated in the coming days.

The ease with which the main article cleared the chamber suggests that the bill as a whole will emerge intact. However, its most controversial proposal, allowing gay couples to adopt children, is expected to generate much debate.

“We are happy and proud to have taken this first step,” Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said. “We are going to establish the freedom for everyone to choose his or her partner for a future together.”