France: Uproar Over Same-Sex Marriage

Workers Vanguard

The following article was translated from Le Bolchévik No. 203 (March 2013), which is published by the Ligue Trotskyste de France, section of the ICL. A law legalizing gay marriage and adoption, which was passed by the National Assembly on February 12, is due to be debated in the Senate in early April.

The LTF has joined in the recent mobilizations for “marriage for all,” which are aimed at winning some degree of basic rights for gay couples, including finally the right to adopt children. In fact, the first limited legal recognition of gay couples dates back only to 1999 with the introduction of the Civil Solidarity Pact [a form of civil union]. As Marxists, we support the right of homosexuals to marry—and to divorce freely—because we are for full legal equality and democratic rights for gays, just as we support any legal advances that the working class and oppressed can wrest from the capitalists and their state. At the same time, we fight for a society in which no one is forced into a legal straitjacket to get the basic rights that capitalist society grants only to those locked in the traditional legal mold of “one man on one woman for life.”

In the wake of parliament’s adoption of the new bill, the Communist Party (PCF) writes that “marriage is no longer (or not exactly) a patriarchal institution, outdated and reactionary” and that “the National Assembly has revolutionized the institution of the family” (l’Humanité, 13 February). On the one hand the PCF captures a certain truth: the law on gay marriage is intended to adapt marriage to the reality of how people live today in order to better defend the institution of the bourgeois family. As Jean-Jacques Urvoas, the Socialist Party president of the parliamentary law commission, stated in an interview in Le Monde (15 January): “It is mistaken to accuse us of attacking the family when what we want is to make all families secure.”

But until the day capitalism is destroyed, the function of marriage as a key pillar of the bourgeois family unit will not change. Like the oppression of women, the oppression of homosexuals is not primarily the result of right-wing reaction and social backwardness but is rooted in the institution of the family, whose historical function is to transmit private ownership of the means of production to “legitimate” heirs through inheritance. This is why France forbids single people and gay couples from using artificial insemination or medically assisted procreation (including in vitro fertilization) as well as surrogate motherhood. The family is also one of the means through which the ruling class seeks to instill respect for authority and obedience to its moral codes. Homosexuality is deemed “sinful” and “deviant” by the Catholic church and the bourgeois order because it deviates from the patriarchal structure of the monogamous one man/one woman family.

The PCF’s opposition to surrogate parenthood, a practice that benefits gay men in particular, also speaks to its faith in the institution of the family. Surrogate parenthood currently carries a fine of 45,000 euros and a three-year prison sentence. It was strongly denounced by Justice Minister Christiane Taubira and the PCF’s Marie-Georges Buffet during the parliamentary debates on gay marriage and is also attacked by feminists in the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA). They all argue that it commercializes women’s bodies: “Giving power to a third party over a woman’s pregnancy is a threat to the right to abortion. Moreover, the ability to alienate her body by a contract opens the door to the legalization of prostitution” (Tout Est à Nous! La Revue magazine, April 2011).

At bottom, they uphold the bourgeois model that decrees that it is the job of the woman (and not two men) to raise children. They also deny a woman’s fundamental right to choose what to do with her body. If a woman decides to carry a baby for someone else, that’s her decision and the state and its politicians should stay out of it. Likewise, if she becomes a prostitute to make a living rather than being exploited by some factory owner at a job where she breaks her back or suffers relentless harassment, that’s her business and not something for the capitalist state to legislate.

We stand for the decriminalization of prostitution, which we regard as a “crime without a victim,” like drug use, gambling, pornography, homosexual and intergenerational sex—activities that are generally illegal or heavily regulated under capitalist law. For us Marxists, the guiding principle in sexual relations is that of effective consent, not age, relationship, sex, number of people or degree of intimacy. This means nothing more and nothing less than mutual agreement and understanding as opposed to coercion. As long as those who take part agree to do what they are doing, no one, least of all the state, has the right to tell them they cannot. State out of the bedroom!

Homophobic Hysteria and the Fight for Democratic Rights

The church and the right-wing parties have mobilized hundreds of thousands of bigots in the streets against gay marriage. The level of homophobic hysteria can be so grotesque as to seem farcical. Take the diatribe by Dassault, a leading French capitalist, predicting the end of civilization if gay marriage became law: “There will be no more reproduction, so what is the point? Do we want a nation of gays? If so, in ten years there will be no one left; it’s stupid…. Look at history, ancient Greece; it is one of the reasons for its decline” (Le Monde online, 7 November 2012). But some things are more sinister. The youth group of the UMP [Union for a Popular Movement of former president Nicolas Sarkozy] of the Haute Garonne département [administrative division] published on its Web site a photo of a bare-chested young man hanging from a rope with the words above him: “You will not be a queer, my son.” All this will fuel violent assaults against gays and lesbians…as well as their kids. One out of every four homosexuals has been the victim of a physical attack over the last ten years, according to a poll conducted for the gay magazine Têtu. The gay rights association SOS Homophobie in its last annual report lists 29 murders in France during the past decade in which homophobia or transphobia was the motive.

A revolutionary party must vigorously make known to the workers movement all attacks and discrimination on homosexuals and every oppressed sector of the population, vigorously protesting against these assaults. Such attacks are ultimately aimed at weakening the entire working class and dividing it along sexual and racial lines, serving to strengthen the capitalist state’s repressive powers and maintain capitalist rule. The working class must come to understand that in order to liberate itself from the shackles of capitalist oppression and exploitation, it must seize its historic task: to abolish class society in order to open the road to human freedom for everyone.

But to mobilize the immense social power of the organized working class against capitalism necessarily means an intransigent political struggle against the leaders of the social-democratic parties of the Left Front, the NPA and others who take up the defense of the bourgeois family, albeit in its refurbished form. They promote the lie that if only sufficient pressure is applied from the streets, capitalism can be “revolutionized” and made more humane by means of a “left” government. In this way they work to preserve capitalist exploitation and the social reaction that goes with it.

Anti-Woman, Anti-Youth “Republican Values”

Given the reactionary rubbish being spewed by the right, the Socialist Hollande government has had little trouble appearing “progressive” by promoting “marriage for all” (which does not diminish its capitulation to the church and right-wing parties over in vitro fertilization). The government hopes to use this as political capital to get on with presiding over factory closures, criminalizing the trade unions and implementing the rest of its racist, anti-worker agenda without too much opposition. In Britain, it is the Conservative prime minister who has just steered a vote on gay marriage through Parliament in order to strengthen the institution of the family and also, as in Hollande’s case, to give itself a “social” cover in order to better push through its relentless austerity attacks.

Justice Minister Taubira declared of the new marriage law: “Marriage for everyone well illustrates the slogan of the Republic…freedom of choice, equality of all couples, fraternity, because no differences should serve as pretexts for discrimination by the state” (l’Humanité, 30 January). Talk about hypocrisy! The French state, whether run by the right or the left, has no qualms over breaking up families when it comes to the working class, immigrants and other oppressed layers. A gathering in Aubervilliers recently marked the first anniversary of the deportation of Changfeng Mo, an undocumented immigrant with two young children born and educated in France, who was deported after ten years living and working in the country. Full citizenship rights for all immigrants and their families! There is, of course, no sign of “fraternity” coming from cop minister Valls to reunite this man with his family.

Or take France’s latest département, the small island of Mayotte [part of the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean, near Mozambique], which in 2010 carried out 26,400 deportations, of whom 6,400 were children. This number was not far below the 33,000 immigrants deported from metropolitan France. Under Valls & Co., the deportation machine in Mayotte continues to operate at such a pace that kids frequently come home from school to find one or both of their parents gone, taken to the transit center to await deportation. There are also several documented cases in which children have been deported without their parents by being arbitrarily “assigned” to a stranger. Down with the deportations!

For months and months we have heard politicians of the left and right swearing that they have only the best interests of children and youth at heart when at the same time all of them work to maintain the capitalist class and its machinery of state repression—the real source of violence, crime and alienation inflicted on young people in this society. In France today, a quarter of those between the ages of 16 and 24 are jobless and see little immediate prospect of getting out from under the family roof to live independently. In many banlieue areas [minority and working-class neighborhoods on the outskirts of big cities], the jobless figures for youth have been at 50 percent (or more) for some years now. The 2005 banlieue revolt spoke to this despair, particularly among male youth of minority backgrounds, who see no future for themselves outside of a McJob or more likely the unemployment office or prison. And since 2005, the situation has only gotten worse.

Today the Peugeot company and Hollande are shutting down the Aulnay car plant, historically one of the main employers for youth—albeit on lousy temporary contracts—in the “93” [a heavily minority département northeast of Paris]. People like Arnaud Montebourg [Socialist minister of industrial recovery] wag their fingers in the tradition of their hero, [19th-century colonialist] Jules Ferry. They lecture the workers that they need to “try harder,” be more flexible and take jobs hundreds of miles from their homes. In fact, by doing that they are creating thousands more single-parent households with all the weight of oppression this implies, especially for women. Repeated deep cuts in education and health care budgets in recent years also weigh particularly on women and children. It is now common practice for municipalities to refuse school lunches to children of unemployed parents—sometimes their only hot meal of the day—with the state arguing that since the parents don’t work the kids can go home to eat. Thus they ensure that mothers (in the main) remain jobless and isolated in the home. Free school meals and quality, 24-hour childcare for all!

The Family as a Pillar of Capitalism

The only way to begin to do away with the deep-rooted chauvinism and violence generated by the capitalist profit system against youth, women, gays, immigrants and other oppressed layers is the struggle to overthrow bourgeois rule by socialist revolution. Through the expropriation of the productive property of the capitalist class, a workers government will lay the basis for a planned economy that qualitatively expands the productive forces, eliminates scarcity and vastly expands the range and depth of scientific knowledge. Making such a leap in social productivity presupposes the international extension of the revolution, crucially in the advanced imperialist countries. Socialist revolution can then begin to lay the basis for replacing the family by providing the material means to socialize and collectivize its household functions (for example, establishing communal 24-hour childcare, kitchens, cafeterias and laundries as well as free health care).

The family originated with the development of classes. Prior to that stage of history, it was not important who the father was since children were to a large extent raised collectively by the entire community. But the invention of agriculture made it possible for the first time for people to produce more than they could consume themselves. This led to the creation of a surplus and of private property, and thus of an idle class that lived off the labor of others. In order to pass down its fortune and property to the next generation, that class had to know who the father was. This is the origin of the institution of marriage, whose goal was precisely to restrict women’s sexual activity, enforcing monogamy for women (not men). Therefore by its nature the family is sexually repressive. Even today, if a woman in France wants to re-marry in the nine months following her divorce, she is legally obliged to undergo a medical examination to obtain a doctor’s certificate stating that she is not pregnant. This is in line with the Civil Code, which specifies that “if a child is conceived or born during the marriage, the father is the husband.”

French Revolution’s Legacy for Women and Gays

To understand that social progress will only come from revolutionary struggle, it is necessary to look back and study the significant advances won during such periods for women and homosexuals and other minorities. The French Revolution of 1789 was a bourgeois revolution preserving private property, which limited the changes it introduced. Nevertheless it brought monumental progress in women’s and homosexual rights, particularly during its most radical years.

As late as 1783 under the ancien régime, a monk was burned alive after being charged with conducting a sexual act with a boy. The penal code of 1791 removed the crime of sodomy from the books and declared it an “imaginary crime.” Police surveillance of known homosexual meeting places such as the Tuileries gardens diminished markedly in the wake of the revolution.

Women had no rights whatsoever under the ancien régime. The monarchy constantly sought to reinforce, consolidate and extend the father’s control over the marriage of his children. Women charged with committing adultery were sentenced to be publicly whipped, thrown in prison or, worst of all, sent to the convent for life. Men could not marry without parental consent, and if they married a minor (under 25 years for women) without that consent they could be sentenced to death, whether the woman consented or not. Marriage was indissoluble—a life sentence.

In 1792, the age of legal adulthood was reduced to 21 years for all and marriage without parental consent became possible. The divorce law enacted the same year was extremely liberal (even by today’s standards), allowing couples to divorce by mutual consent or through either spouse declaring incompatibility. It made divorce affordable even for the poor throughout the country. In the year following the introduction of the law, 70 percent of all divorces were initiated by women. Further, a 1793 decree gave illegitimate children the right to inherit from both the mother and the father. There was also legislation accepting “free unions,” so that, for example, unmarried partners of soldiers could receive government pensions. With one stroke, the institution of the family lost one of its main functions, i.e., to transfer property from one generation to another. As we wrote in “Women and the French Revolution” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 56, Spring 2001):

“The family was temporarily undermined in order to serve the needs of the revolution against its enemies, the feudal nobility and Catholic church. This is one demonstration of the fact that social institutions which seem to be immutable, to be ‘natural’ and ‘eternal,’ are in fact nothing more than the codification of social relations dictated by the particular economic system that is in place. After the bourgeoisie consolidated its power as the new ruling class, it re-established the constraints of the family. But nothing would ever be the same again. The contradictory reality of the French Revolution—the breathtaking leap in securing individual rights and the strict limits imposed on those rights by the fact that this was a bourgeois and not a socialist revolution—was captured by Karl Marx in The German Ideology:

“‘The existence of the family is made necessary by its connection with the mode of production, which exists independently of the will of bourgeois society. That it was impossible to do without it was demonstrated in the most striking way during the French Revolution, when for a moment the family was as good as legally abolished’.”

With the Thermidorian reaction many of these gains were diminished or overturned, but the situation of women had progressed qualitatively as it also had for homosexuals; there could never be a return to the total subjugation of women that existed under the ancien régime. The fight for women’s liberation was front and center during the Paris Commune decades later. With the establishment of the Napoleonic civil code in 1804, which consolidated the bourgeois order, various morality laws were reintroduced which were used in part to repress gay men, but there was no explicit criminalization of homosexuality in the penal code. This was why Oscar Wilde and other gay men settled in France in order to escape prison in their own countries.

Anti-Homosexual Repression After World War II

It was not until 1942 under Vichy that the Pétain government [quisling regime of the Nazi occupation] amended the law to once again explicitly criminalize homosexuality. Under the German occupation, the French police and the Gestapo rounded up homosexuals and sent them to the labor and death camps—crimes that were not recognized by a French head of state until 2005. These laws were not repealed but were reinforced under the early postwar governments under General de Gaulle and the PCF. This was the period of the “battle of production”: after the devastation of the imperialist war, there were enormous social expectations and great anger among the working class. The PCF labored to save French capitalism and supported de Gaulle’s “moral order.” They condemned strikes and pushed workers to toil harder and longer in order to produce more profits (and also to produce children that would later work in the factories…). In 1945, de Gaulle evoked the “12 million beautiful babies that France needs in 12 years,” and legislation was introduced to further strengthen the family.

In July 1945, the government voted to increase the age of consent to 15 for heterosexuals and 21 for homosexuals (previously set at eleven years old in 1832 and in 1863 at 13, for everyone). The following year, the government introduced a law targeting homosexuals whereby only people “of good moral character” could work in the civil service. In 1960, again under de Gaulle, a Gaullist parliamentarian denounced homosexuality as “a scourge against which it is our duty to protect our children,” and the need to “struggle against homosexuality,” alongside alcoholism, prostitution and certain illnesses like tuberculosis, was inscribed in law. This amendment did not produce the slightest debate.

It was only in the wake of the May 1968 upheaval that anything changed. In May ’68, youth rose up against de Gaulle’s stultifying moral order, sparking strikes and factory occupations that threatened the capitalist order. Women and homosexuals once again began to make advances in their democratic rights. Already during May ’68, attempts were made to create a Revolutionary Committee of Gay Action, but its leaflets posted at the Sorbonne university were torn down. In subsequent years, homosexual organizations such as the FHAR (Homosexual Front of Revolutionary Action) were set up, fighting centrally for gay rights but also for the right to abortion and contraception and in opposition to the age-of-consent laws. These organizations gave unprecedented visibility to the fight for gay rights. They participated in the labor movement’s traditional May Day demonstrations, although not without hostility from the leaders of the PCF at that time. Speaking of the FHAR’s participation in the 1972 May Day demonstration, the PCF’s Roland Leroy wrote in l’Humanité: “This riffraff does not represent the vanguard of society but the rottenness of capitalism in its decay.”

But it was the refusal of the workers movement (centrally the PCF) to embrace the fight for gay rights that led to the development of petty-bourgeois sectoralism, i.e., a view that the fight for gay rights was a separate issue, to be engaged mainly by those concerned. Today’s gay rights groups have few links with and are often hostile to the workers movement and class struggle, the only means by which gay liberation can be won. Finally in 1974, access to contraception was opened up, including for minors, and the Pill reimbursed by the national health care system. A year later, abortion was legalized. Then between 1980 and 1982, under [conservative president] Giscard d’Estaing followed by [Socialist president François] Mitterrand, the laws criminalizing homosexuality were also for the most part repealed at last.

The Russian Revolution and Social Emancipation

For Marxists, contrary to gay rights organizations like the FHAR in the 1970s or groups like Act Up today, there is no special program for homosexuals. The communist program includes demands that address the special oppression of gays, and we understand that the fate of homosexuals—like all other oppressed groups—is determined by the class struggle. But under capitalism, gains and advances are reversible and social reaction is always strengthened during periods of economic crises, as can be seen today.

Only a socialist revolution can lay the basis for definitively putting an end to social oppression. Our model is the 1917 October Revolution, led by the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky. Immediately after the seizure of power, the Soviet workers state began to undercut the old bourgeois prejudices and social institutions responsible for the oppression of women and homosexuals. The Bolsheviks abolished all legal impediments to women’s equality and all laws against homosexual acts and other consensual sexual activity. Their position was explained in a 1923 pamphlet by Dr. Grigorii Batkis, Director of the Moscow Institute for Sexual Hygiene, titled “The Sexual Revolution in Russia” (see also “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 59, Spring 2006):

“[The new Soviet legislation] declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon…. Concerning homosexuality, sodomy, and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offenses against public morality—Soviet legislation treats these exactly the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse. All forms of sexual intercourse are private matters.”

For the Bolsheviks, women’s emancipation was an integral part of the emancipation of the working class itself, not something subordinate to it. The Bolsheviks, informed by their Marxist program for women’s liberation, sought to build socialized alternatives to the family, within the limits of their capacity in backward Russia. The country had been bled white by World War I and the civil war that broke out soon after the October Revolution and was under the immense pressure of hostile imperialist encirclement. They struggled, amid the harsh economic situation, to provide the material and economic means to abolish the family unit and release women from the isolation of childcare and domestic work. These glimmers of a new society and an end to the oppression of women and gays later faded under the political counterrevolution led by Stalin in 1923-24 in the context of the isolation of the young workers state. In 1934 a law was passed punishing homosexuality with imprisonment, and in 1936 abortion was outlawed.

Sexuality is not in itself a political question. It is the bourgeoisie that politicizes this issue by victimizing those who do not fit the norms established by the family, church and state. We seek to carry forward the program of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks and to mobilize the proletariat in defense of the rights of all the oppressed as part of the fight to overturn capitalism through socialist revolution. To create genuinely free and equal relations among people in all spheres, including sex, requires nothing less than the destruction of capitalist class rule and the creation of a communist world. 

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