Germany legalised same-sex marriage Friday in a change nonetheless opposed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, joining many other western democracies in granting gay and lesbian couples full rights, including adoption.
The election-year bill was pushed by Merkel's leftist rivals, who pounced on comments she made early this week suggesting a policy U-turn -- a manoeuvre that left her conservative lawmakers fuming.
Merkel allowed her Christian Democratic Party (CDU) lawmakers to vote their conscience on the bill rather than follow the party line, and it passed by a vote of 393 to 226 on parliament's last day before the summer recess.
But Merkel said Friday that she voted against the legalisation because she believes marriage is the preserve of a man and a woman.
"To me, marriage as defined in the German constitution means the marriage between husband and wife, and that is why I voted against the law today," she said.
But she did say that her thinking had changed on the question of child adoption by same-sex couples, which she long opposed.
After the law passed, which prompted jubilant proponents to throw confetti in the Bundestag, the German legal code will change to say "marriage is entered into for life by two people of different or the same sex".
The upper house has already approved the measure, which is expected to enter into force before the end of the year.
Renate Kuenast of the Greens party, which has pushed for decades for LGBT rights, quipped cheerfully: "I would advise all registry offices in the country to boost staff numbers."
[caption id="attachment_71787" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Courtesy- Deutsche Welle
‘Breach of trust’
The rapid series of events kicked off with an on-stage interview Merkel gave Monday to women's magazine Brigitte, in which an audience member asked her: "When can I call my boyfriend my husband if I want to marry him?"
Merkel, who long opposed gay marriage with adoption rights citing "the well-being of the children", replied that her thinking had shifted since she met a lesbian couple who cared for eight foster children.
She said she favoured a vote at an undefined future time when all lawmakers could follow their conscience rather than a party line.
Many read the surprising comments as a move to deny opposition parties of a strong campaign issue before September 24 elections.
Merkel's coalition allies the Social Democrats (SPD), as well as the Greens, far-left Linke and pro-business Free Democrats have all declared a gay marriage law as a red-line demand and precondition for an alliance.
And on Tuesday, after much buzz on social media, SPD chancellor-candidate Martin Schulz took Merkel at her word and broke coalition ranks to call for an immediate vote -- a move the CDU slammed as a "breach of trust" after four years of joint rule.
Merkel indignantly labelled the political ambush and hasty rush to vote on such a weighty issue "sad and, above all, totally unnecessary"
But during friday's emotional parliamentary debate, one SPD lawmaker angrily criticised Merkel, accusing her of "pathetic and embarrassing" meandering on the issue.
"Mrs Merkel, thanks for nothing!" said Johannes Kahrs, a gay rights activist, charging that she had blocked progress on gay and lesbian rights for years.
He characterised her Monday-night comments as a "Schabowski moment" -- a reference to the communist East German official Guenter Schabowski, whose fumbling comments at a 1989 press conference sparked the mass rush to border crossings that brought down the Berlin Wall.
The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) was the only party to oppose same-sex marriage.
Conservative daily the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung predicted that, after the vote, "it will be said Angela Merkel has avoided another stumbling block to post-election coalition talks".
"But the CDU will also have lost its right to be called a conservative party –- and instead now appears willing to throw any conservative values overboard in order to keep up with the times."
Markus Ulrich of the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany said Merkel had long argued against gay marriage "in an emotional way and never with real arguments".