Same Sex, Different Politics: "Gay Marriage" Debates in France and the United States
In France, “America” is always (to borrow a phrase from Claude Lévi-Strauss) “good to think.”1 It is not, of course, that actual, in-depth knowledge of the United States is required in French intellectual life. On the contrary, sociology or anthropology might unduly complicate matters for intellectuals and unfairly undermine their legitimacy. Thus it probably is no accident that there should be so few academic specialists of contemporary American society in France (probably fewer than scholars competent on, say, Côte d’Ivoire).2 In the absence of specialized knowledge about the United States, generalist intellectuals feel entitled to elaborate arguments about America. The rhetorical figure stands for the empirical image. Indeed, one could argue that this has become the defining feature of the public intellectual in France: an intellectual is someone whose legitimacy allows him (more often than her) to address French issues through references to America.
From the “Rhetoric of America” to the Transatlantic Comparison
Throughout the 1990s, the “rhetoric of America” was constantly invoked in French public discourse, especially in debates regarding minority issues—ethnicity as well as gender and sexuality. Today as much as ever, America is indeed good to think, as a model or (more frequently) a countermodel for French identity politics. This is most manifest in the case of gay and lesbian issues, whose very vocabulary is borrowed from American culture—from “drag queens” to “backrooms,” from “coming out” to “outing,” from “gay” to “queer.” This imitation, which may be called “Americanization,” even extends to the name of an association like Act-Up or a ritual such as the yearly Gay Pride march. The language of queer politics is (American) English, albeit with a French accent. Conversely, opposition to gay and lesbian politics (even among moderate gays) is often formulated as a rejection of so-called American identity politics in the name of French political culture.
In France, the contrast between the two models of the nation gained prominence in public debates around 1989. This rhetorical contrast was then developed around immigration issues—as a reflection on what was presented as a national model of citizenship—and later extended to other minority issues with the revival of feminist as well as gay and lesbian politics. The French model of the nation is called républicain, as it claims to prolong a political tradition formulated by the Third Republic (in reference to the principles of the 1789 Revolution). This ideal of national integration does not acknowledge group identities of any kind: the universalist model of citizenship is based on abstract individuals. Regional, religious, and ethnic differences are not to be taken into account by the state. Citizens are all supposed to be equivalent: as a consequence, such differences belong to the private sphere rather than to the public realm of politics. At the end of the nineteenth century, this ideology was meant to unify the nation by transforming “peasants into Frenchmen.”3
The rhetoric that was developed at the end of the nineteenth century through a contrast with Germany was rehabilitated in the 1990s through a contrast with the new dominant model. It is hardly surprising that America should play this role today, since the central political issue has recently become the transformation of “immigrants into Frenchmen.” According to this updated rhetoric, the American model of citizenship is based on group identities. Individuals belong to “communities,” who find their political voices through “lobbies.” Both terms (and both realities) are said to be fundamentally foreign to the French tradition: it is assumed that political representation is always “color-blind” in France, while in the United States it could only be “color-conscious”—in terms of race and ethnicity as well as gender and sexual orientation.
Obviously, this contrast has a political function: it is prescriptive, rather than descriptive. The transatlantic mirror is meant to discourage political groups from “importing” minority issues, lest “communities” should become “ghettoes.” American-style fragmentation (ethnic and otherwise) appears as the ultimate threat when a differentialist ideology replaces universalist principles; this is how multiculturalism has been depicted in French debates throughout the 1990s. The rhetoric of the Republic thus functions as a warning against “the disuniting of France”4—and it is not coincidental that the American controversies surrounding so-called political correctness found such an echo in France precisely at the time when the rhetorical contrast between the two models was elaborated.
This is not the place to discuss the culturalist premises of this rhetoric5— although we shall see at the end of this essay how the debate on immigration may have overlapped with the debate on same-sex couples, insofar as the two reflect on the definition of culture and the nation. Given this comparative obsession, it would seem quite logical that in France the public polemic on same-sex unions should have been accounted for in the language most readily available for minority issues. This would appear all the more natural since the debate started on both sides of the Atlantic at the turn of the 1990s. It first gained importance in the United States in 1993, following Baehr v. Lewin, the momentous Hawaii Supreme Court decision that opened the theoretical possibility of same-sex marriage— this case asked whether there were any “compelling” reasons to refuse marriage for same-sex couples.6 In France, it became most visible in 1997 once the Socialists returned to power with their platform that included the legal recognition of same-sex couples—which lead to the 13 October 1999 vote of approval for the Pacte Civil de Solidarité (Civil Pact of Solidarity, widely known as PaCS).7
The PaCS status is open to same-sex and different-sex couples (this point remained in all versions proposed under different names throughout the 1990s). It offers a halfway solution between concubinage and mariage, that is, between an informal domestic partnership and the full legitimacy of the marriage institution. The law guarantees social rights for the new pacsés (a word that gained currency after the passage of the law), including access to health insurance, tax exemptions, and even inheritance. But these are limited rights (access to citizenship is notably not included) and, moreover, are granted with obvious reluctance (delays are imposed before the rights take effect, under the suspicion of fraud). However, the two-year public debate focused on an issue the bill deliberately left aside: whether such a status might in the future open legal access for same-sex couples to reproductive technologies (now available only for different-sex couples, whether married or not) and adoption rights (currently open both to married couples and to unmarried individuals, in principle whether gay or straight—though today sexual preference is, in practice, a discriminating factor).
The chronological parallel between the two debates, in France and in the United States, could thus have been expected to reinforce the necessity of the rhetorical comparison. However, it is precisely on the issue of same-sex marriage, and precisely at the time when the debate erupted on the public stage, that the rhetoric of America all but vanished in France. Since 1997 there have been virtually no references to the United States—whether among intellectuals or politicians, journalists or experts. This indifference may not come as a surprise for an American audience: no one felt it useful to invoke France when debating the consequences of the Hawaii decision. But of course there is no symmetry between the two sides of the transatlantic mirror: the “rhetoric of France” clearly does not carry the same weight in the United States as its counterpart does in France. Moreover, it may be that American curiosity will prove somewhat greater in this instance. In any case, what remains profoundly paradoxical is the sudden shift—as if, almost overnight, the rhetoric of America had become a useless tool.
How can one account for such a paradox? The explanation is to be found in the very definition of this rhetoric. The politics of homosexuality that occupied center stage in the United States at that time (and one should remember that the integration of gays in the military was the other issue in 1993, after Bill Clinton first rose to the presidency) did not in the least correspond to the rhetoric of America then prevailing in France: if American gays were to become good husbands, good soldiers, and even good priests, whether one liked it or not, such an evolution led to “integration” rather than “ghettoization.” Thus, minority politics in the United States were not necessarily “differentialist.” Opening marriage to same-sex couples in the United States proved more républicain in its universalist logic than anything considered on the other side of the Atlantic. In a word, Hawaii proved more French than France herself.
As a consequence, the politics of same-sex marriage did not translate well. This is why the rhetoric of America suddenly became irrelevant to minority issues in France: its logic was thus undermined by the social and political reality of the United States. The idea that America suddenly became irrelevant is not to be generalized, of course: anti-Americanism is alive and well, and in fact, at the same time, it has been revived in more recent debates on economic globalization and international imperialism. The shift revealed by the specific issue of same-sex marriage only concerns minority issues. Indeed, one could argue that the rhetoric of America, once it had become irrelevant for minority issues, became available for other purposes.8
Same-sex union politics manifest this rhetorical shift. The original versions of the PaCS were first proposed in the name of the French républicain tradition— how could its initiators acknowledge that, by contrast to the Hawaiian solution, theirs was only a halfway solution on the universalistic path? However, as a consequence, unlike in previous years, those who opposed the PaCS were no longer in a position to invoke universalism—which had been preempted—to deny minority rights. They had to invent other arguments—the universality of “sexual difference” thus became a way to avoid the transatlantic rhetoric while opposing same-sex marriage.
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- 1. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le totémisme aujourd’hui (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1962), 132.
- The comparison is inspired by my first fieldwork experience, in West Africa. However, beyond this personal element, I believe the contrast reveals something about cultural domination: as in the relation between colonized and colonizer, knowledge is anything but symmetrical. A dominant culture tends to produce the representations through which it is perceived (whether rejected or imitated) by others. Thus, in a struggle for cultural emancipation, while the control of its self-representations may constitute the first step for a dominated culture, the second step does require elaborating its own representations of the dominant culture. This could well be my political justification for becoming a French specialist of American society.
- Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976).
- See also Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (New York: Norton, 1992).
- I have developed this critique elsewhere. See Eric Fassin, “‘Good to Think’: The American Reference in French Discourses of Immigration and Ethnicity,” in Multicultural Questions, ed. Christian Joppke and Steven Lukes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), and Fassin, “The Purloined Gender: American Feminism in a French Mirror,” French Historical Studies 22, no. 1 (1999): 113–38.
- Baehr v. Lewin, 852 P.2d 44 (Haw. 1993).
- “Loi 99-994 du 15 novembre 1999 relative au Pacte Civil de Solidarité,” Journal Officiel de la République Française, 16 November 1999, 16959–60. For more information on the law, see Caroline Mécary and Flora Leroy-Forgeot, Le PaCS (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000).
- The parallel debate on parité, that is, equal political representation for women, reflects this shift in a symmetrical fashion. What had first been presented as an opposition between Americanstyle differentialism (quotas) versus French-style universalism (individual citizenship) was reformulated around 1997 by some advocates of parité (such as Sylviane Agacinski) in the language of the universality of sexual difference. In refusing to consider “women” as a minority (sexual difference to them was not only different but also more essential than any other difference based on sexuality or ethnicity), they bypassed the rhetoric of America and thus undermined the républicain argument. See Sylviane Agacinski, Politique des sexes (Paris: Seuil, 1998). See also Eric Fassin and Michel Feher, “Parité et PaCS: Anatomie politique d’un rapport,” in Au-delà du PaCS: L’expertise familiale à l’épreuve de l’homosexualité, ed. Daniel Borrillo, Eric Fassin, and Marcela Iacub (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999).