By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters) - Several hundred thousand opponents of same-sex marriage marched in central Paris on Sunday against a reform the unpopular French government passed last month at the price of deepening political polarization.
Large park grounds around Les Invalides monument were full of protesters waving pink and blue flags, while far-right activists hung a banner on the ruling Socialist Party headquarters urging President Francois Hollande to quit.
The protests, which began as a grass roots campaign strongly backed by the Roman Catholic Church, have morphed into a wider movement with opposition politicians and far-right militants airing their discontent with Hollande.
Although they have failed to block gay marriage, the protesters hope their renewed show of force will help stop or slow down further laws some Socialists want allowing assisted procreation and surrogate motherhood for gay couples.
Jean-Francois Cope, leader of the opposition UMP party, marched in the demonstration and urged young protesters to join his party to keep up pressure on the left-wing government.
"The next rendez-vous should be at the ballot boxes for the municipal elections," he said, referring to local polls due next year where conservatives hope to profit from the protest movement's unexpectedly strong mobilization.
While the rally was peaceful throughout much of the day, police said they arrested 96 hardline opponents to the gay marriage law later on for refusing to disperse or occupying private property.
Once the bulk of protesters had gone home, clashes erupted between hardliners wielding sticks and riot police, filling the Invalides Esplanade with tear gas. The violence was less severe than at the end of previous demonstrations, however.
Police said 150,000 marched on Sunday while protest organizers said a million people took part.
WARNINGS OF VIOLENCE IGNORED
Interior Minister Manuel Valls warned protesters on Saturday not to bring children along because of violence he feared after far-right militants clashed with police at recent rallies. He mobilized 4,500 police to secure the event.
Many parents ignored his warnings and some picnicked with children on the lawn at the rally. "Look, it's perfectly safe here," said Elisabeth Huet from Orleans, who marched along with her adult daughter and three small grandchildren.
A survey published on Sunday showed 53 percent of those polled support gay marriage and adoption, indicating a slide of about 10 points since the protests began last November. It said 72 percent thought the protests should stop now.
Plagued by economic recession, unemployment at more than 10 percent and pressure to reduce the public deficit, Hollande got some respite on Sunday from another poll showing his record low popularity had inched up four points to 29 percent this month.
While leaders of Hollande's Socialist Party denounced the protest against a law already passed in parliament and validated by the Constitutional Council, the conservative UMP party was split over whether to continue the rallies.
There were fewer Catholic priests than at earlier demonstrations. Several bishops joined previous marches, but distanced themselves as protests became more openly political.
France's first gay wedding is due to take place on Wednesday in Montpellier, France's self-proclaimed capital of gay culture.
France, a traditionally Catholic country, followed 13 others including Canada, Denmark, Sweden and most recently Uruguay and New Zealand in allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed.
In the United States, Washington D.C. and 12 states have legalized same-sex marriage.
(Reporting By Tom Heneghan; editing by Mike Collett-White)