Gender Trouble in France

Camille Robcis

Historian Camille Robcis on why debates over Judith Butler and gay marriage are engulfing France.

Interview by
Kevin Duong

Conservative scholars and Catholic activists in France have been denouncing a “theory of gender” that they believe is guiding the decisions of François Hollande’s Socialist government. They’ve marched in the streets with signs saying “No to the Theory of Gender,” “We Want Sex, Not Gender,” and “Leave Us Our Gender Stereotypes.” They’ve set up websites such as the Observatory for the Theory of Gender. They’ve organized parent groups.

And last December some of them — mobilized by emails, tweets, and SMSs — launched a “day of retreat from school,” urging parents to keep their children at home one day a month in reaction to the spread of the “theory of gender” in public schools.

Intersecting with the violent and intense national protests against gay marriage that started in 2013, this ferment appears to announce a broader national crisis about gender and the family. Along with French socialism’s neoliberal turn and the National Front’s rise, the crisis is bringing into focus ugly, neglected dimensions of contemporary French politics, touching on gender, immigration, reproduction, and the limits of secularism and universalism.

Historian Camille Robcis’s recent book, The Law of Kinship, offers a way of understanding these forces. It suggests that these recent controversies — which have surprised observers both inside and outside of France — belong to a longer story of French universalism and its dependence on the heterosexual family. What follows is a condensed interview with Robcis in which she explains why France seems so obsessed with gender these days.

Robcis is a professor of history at Cornell University. She was interviewed for Jacobin by Kevin Duong, a doctoral candidate in political theory at Cornell.

Kevin Duong

While gender theory in the US typically refers to an academic enterprise, it seems to hold a broader meaning in these French debates.

Camille Robcis

I guess the first thing to clarify is that there is no “theory of gender.” As you point out, theorizing gender as a concept, as the social / cultural overlay of sex, has indeed been primarily an academic enterprise in the United States (although not exclusively, since law and politics also use the term gender as a synonym of sex). But the “theory of gender” per se does not exist: it is simply a discursive strategy devised by conservative groups to oppose equal rights for women and for homosexuals.

There is no real consensus on what this “theory of gender” consists of, even among its detractors. However, several books have come out in France in recent years trying to explain the origins and effects of this “theory” (or ideology, or agenda as it is alternatively called), with titles like Non à la théorie du genre, L’éducation à l’âge du gender, or Gender: La controverse.

According to these sources, the “theory of gender” was born in the American academy and in particular in women’s studies departments, where it was shaped by (depending on the source) Marxism, deconstruction, postmodernism, and feminism — with all their different implications: nihilism, relativism, constructionism, and radicalism. The concept, they believe, was popularized within international organizations such as the United Nations or the European Union, and, domestically, within the Socialist Party.

Within the French context, critics regularly bring up the biology textbooks affair of 2011, when new textbooks introduced high school students to a notion of gender defined as socially acquired, rather than biological. They also point to the “ABCD de l’Égalité,” a campaign launched in 2013 to fight gender stereotypes in elementary education.

The new education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, has now become a target of conservative groups because of her involvement in that campaign as the previous minister of women’s rights. Those groups are worried that she will continue to promote a “gender ideology” in schools in her new post.

The notion of a “theory of gender” being taught in the schools is seen as particularly worrisome, not only because children are imagined to be susceptible to radical ideas, but also because schools in France — free, compulsory, and secular — have historically served as a privileged vector for integrating citizens into the nation.

In practical terms, these parents fear that their children will be taught homosexuality, masturbation, and transgenderism — and, more broadly, that they will become citizens who embrace nihilism, relativism, radicalism, social constructionism, and all the values they attribute to the “theory of gender.”

Kevin Duong

It seems like this debate has forced its way to the surface very suddenly in the last few years. Is that true?

Camille Robcis

Well, the way I would put it is that the debate around the “theory of gender” has resurfaced with particular intensity since the passing of the 2013 gay marriage law, known as “Marriage for All” (mariage pour tous). Although the reform had been one of Hollande’s campaign promises, it unleashed an opposition that surprised many commentators inside and outside of France, given the relative acceptance of homosexuality in French society and the apparent widespread disinterest in the institution of marriage.

In these debates, the main point of contention was filiation, or parenting rights. Although the marriage pour tous law did not legalize reproductive technologies for same-sex couples, it did open the door to adoption, and much of the controversy focused on whether children raised in same-sex families could and should be recognized by the law. Most of the posters and slogans of the protesters also centered on this problem of reproduction.

Reproduction, of course, implies a particular vision of the nation, and this is where gender and gay marriage converge. In many of these anti-gender arguments, gay marriage is depicted as a demand coming from left-leaning members of the political and intellectual elite inspired by the kind of radical constructionism that they believe “the theory of gender” celebrates.

A recent book authored by three of the leading anti-gender campaigners puts it beautifully: From the Theory of Gender to Same-Sex Marriage: The Domino Effect. The cover image portrays a small child crushed under falling dominos, under the words “theory of gender,” “gay marriage,” “multiparenting,” “assisted reproductive technologies,” and “surrogacy.” According to this slippery-slope logic, reproductive technologies (which are illegal in France for same-sex couples) and surrogacy (illegal altogether) will inevitably result from the law.

The “theory of gender,” in other words, emerges as both the cause and the outcome of gay marriage. If homosexuals are allowed to reproduce, who will emerge from this process? What will the family looks like, and more importantly, what will the future, the social, and the nation look like? Likewise, if children are taught to question gender stereotypes and to think about their sexual identity as more fluid with the help of this “theory of gender,” what kind of citizens will they become? What norms will govern our world?

Kevin Duong

In your book, The Law of Kinship, you suggest that these recent controversies in France over gender and filiation might best be understood in terms of a longer history of “familialism” in France. That history helps us see how reproduction, social and national cohesion, and the rhetoric of universalism historically come together in the family.

As you see it, familialism posits a tight link between kinship and socialization. The family, in turn, becomes the premier place for conceiving the French social body. Can you elaborate on this idea?

Camille Robcis

My book came out in May 2013, the same month that the Marriage for All law was finally signed, and what was sort of amazing was it to see how the political context was confirming everything that I had argued in the book! I say amazing but also horrifying, because it is important to remember the real violence that France witnessed during these months.

You may recall the case of Wilfred de Bruijn, who was beaten up in the streets of Paris while walking home with his boyfriend, or Clément Méric, a 19-year-old student involved in left-wing politics — including the fight for gay marriage — who was beaten to death by skinheads close to a far-right group protesting the law. During the demonstrations, the head of the largest protest group declared, “If Hollande wants blood, he’ll get some,” and the parliamentary debate featured some of the most insulting and virulent language ever heard in the National Assembly.

In any case, in my book I was interested, as you say, in this longer history of “familialism” in France. I wanted to understand why the heterosexual family has held such a foundational role in French political culture. While in the US much of the debate around gay rights in the 1990s focused on marriage, the main stumbling block in France was — and still is — reproduction.

Of course, the family is politically important everywhere but what I argued in my book is that since the nineteenth century, French civil law and social policy have constructed the heterosexual family as constitutive of the social. In other words, the family figures as the best unit to organize solidarity and build political consensus, the most universal and most abstractable mode of social representation, and the purest expression of the general will.

This is what I call the “republican social contract.” This long and lasting connection between the family and republicanism can help us understand why recent laws concerning bioethics, same-sex unions, single-parent households, family names, surrogacy, and gay adoption have been so controversial in France.

It can also explain why certain arguments that seem strange from this side of the Atlantic came to the forefront in these French debates. One argument that recurred throughout the 1990s, and that I examine extensively in the book, was that alternative configurations of the family posed a fundamental problem at the level of “the symbolic,” and that they would bring about social chaos and psychosis.

To make this point, judges, legislators, and intellectuals turned to structuralist anthropology and psychoanalysis; in fact, they made use of some of the most obscure and difficult notions of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan. My argument is that they found in structuralism a justification for the universal and transhistorical centrality of sexual difference in all forms of social and psychic organization. Structuralism offered them a way to bypass what was historical, geographical, political, and even empirical in sexuality and kinship, and to define them instead as abstract, universal, and normative categories.

This history of thinking the heterosexual family as constitutive of the social and as synonymous with republicanism can help us better understand why the anti-gay-marriage protestors would continually present gay marriage and the “theory of gender” as a foreign export, as the product of either wild liberalism or totalitarianism – in either case, as non-republican and fundamentally opposed to French culture.

The logic underlying these claims is that changing the structure of the family would necessarily bring about a new political order, one resolutely not French.

Kevin Duong

This raises the question of who exactly these critics of “gender” are. Viewed from the United States, French political culture looks very secular. In the US, we’re accustomed to protests against sexual equality coming from the religious right.

You’ve mentioned that conservative Catholics have been active in the movement in France, but you also note that secular arguments have been deployed about the role of the family in the republican social contract. Where are the critics of “gender theory” coming from – the religious right, the republican left, or both?

Camille Robcis

France is certainly not the only country where these issues have been deeply divisive, but in the US, as you say, the Right generally has no problem invoking religion or morality to defend the heterosexual reproductive family.

One of my concerns in the book was to understand why judges, politicians, and intellectuals on both the Right and the Left turned to thinkers like Lévi-Strauss and Lacan to ground their opposition to the legal recognition of non-traditional families. You could see this during the debates around the 1994 bioethics laws or the 1999 domestic partnership bill.

In France, structuralism did not exactly replace religion, but it certainly provided a model of transcendental normative expertise, one that had the advantage of being in perfect accordance with the secular and modern self-understanding of French political culture.

One of the interesting differences between France and the US is that in these debates around filiation in France, the Right/Left camps have often been blurred. So the resistance against sexual equality has indeed come primarily from the Right and the Catholic world.

But during the 1990s they were joined by a number of politicians and intellectuals on the republican left who strongly believed that family structure was not open to debate – for example, the sociologist Irène Théry, the psychoanalyst Jean-Pierre Winter, or the anthropologist Françoise Héritier. Some of these people have apparently changed their minds since the 1990s, but at the time they were adamant that even though single-parent and same-sex families existed, the law should absolutely not recognize them.

During this last wave of protests against gay marriage and gender, Catholics have been much more present and vocal. To some extent, the French case must be understood as part of a broader attempt to defend the heterosexual reproductive family on the part of the Vatican and a global Christian right. After all, in 2004, Joseph Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II already warned the Catholic world against the pernicious effects of gender.

But what is fascinating is that most of these French Catholic activists and scholars are not using religious arguments. Rather, they are trying to reclaim values that have been key in French political culture, such as republicanism, universalism, and humanism, and heterosexualize them. The “theory of gender” thus comes to operate as a keyword for an understanding of norms as being historical and shifting, as opposed to a structural understanding of the human grounded in sexual difference.

For example, the Manif Pour Tous literally means the Demonstration for All. This is a clear echo of the government’s name for the law, mariage pour tous, or Marriage for All. This “branding” of the bill as universal (as opposed to a particularistic “gay marriage”) was strategic on the part of the law’s promoters, who sought to inscribe it within a tradition of republican universalism — or, we could say, to tailor it to French political culture.

Thus, the fact that the anti-gay marriage Manif Pour Tous also embraced the rhetoric of universalism points to a real struggle around the definition and limits of this universalism. Will republican universalism be able to accommodate same-sex families or will it remain fundamentally heterosexual as these protestors wish?

Another group called itself the Printemps Français, or French Spring, and claimed Gandhi, Solidarnosc, Martin Luther King, and Antigone as their symbols. Their manifesto never even mentions same-sex marriage. Instead, it claims to be an insurrection “from the bottom, against the neoliberalism of a political, financial, and media oligarchy,” a “democratization of the critical spirit,” a fight for the defense of “humanism.”

In many ways, this group adopts some of the classic moves and tropes of populism. It claims to have emerged “spontaneously” as the true will of the people, the silent majority, the new “third estate” to quote Béatrice Bourges, one the leaders of the movement. They regularly call for acts of civil disobedience and for a referendum to bypass the process of political representation judged to be corrupt at its core.

What I find really interesting here is that this is a form of populism that invokes humanism and universalism. It presents itself as championing a disenfranchised group (everyday normal middle class heterosexual families) rebelling against the privileged few (the gay and socialist intellectual and political elites) in the name of the people — but not a particular people, a universal one! So I think we see here again, a real struggle around universalism and Frenchness, around the nation.

Kevin Duong

I’d like to follow up on that point. As you point out in your book, one of the common refrains heard in the same-sex marriage debates has been that it panders to American-style “communitarianism,” which is opposed to French republican universalism.

How does this link up to the recent attacks on “the theory of gender?” Why would the specter of a “theory of gender” be construed in national terms, as anti-French?

Camille Robcis

One of the interesting evolutions in the debates around gay marriage since early 1990s is that, in fact, this rhetoric of communitarianism has been much less prevalent than in previous years. The struggle over republicanism and communitarianism has a long history in French political culture, one that we can trace to the early 1980s and that was not specific to sexuality.

But essentially, in very simplified terms, the idea of republican universalism rests on what the historian Joan Scott has described as “two related abstractions: that of the individual and that of the nation.” Unlike the American system in which government serves as a mediator amongst various conflicting private interests, French universalism imagines that government representatives will be able to abstract their particularities (religious, economic, professional, etc) in order to speak for the collectivity as a whole.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, French universalism was tested as certain “particularities” — most notably gender, Islam, and homosexuality — were not deemed “abstractable” enough to be “absorbed” by the universalist paradigm. For the defenders of this strict republicanism, the hijab, for instance, represented a fundamental attachment to a particular interest (Islam), a form of communitarianism fundamentally incompatible with France.

On the opposite camp, many suggested that it was possible to wear the hijab while adhering to the values of the Republic. Thus, in response to the 2004 law banning “conspicuous signs” of religious affiliation in public schools, many high school students walked in the streets of Paris wearing red-white-and-blue veils and carrying signs “yes to the veil, yes to tolerance, yes to laïcité.”

Through the 1990s the debates around gay rights were permeated by the rhetoric of republicanism. When activists pushed for the PACS, the domestic partnership bill that was eventually approved in 1999, they deliberately framed it in universalist terms, as a law for all couples, heterosexual and homosexual alike, to avoid being dismissed as “communitarian,” as catering exclusively to the interests of the gay community. It was because both sides claimed to be acting according to republican principles that new arguments, notably from structuralist anthropology and psychoanalysis, came to the forefront.

Part of the reason why the rhetoric of communitarianism has been less prevalent this time around is due to the fact that the promoters of the law insisted on the idea that the Marriage for All bill was in perfect accordance with the modern, secular, and universalist values of the French Republic.

In her parliamentary speeches, Christiane Taubira was careful to reinscribe the mariage pour tous in the long history of civil marriage in France, from the Revolution, to divorce, to women’s rights, what she called “a resolutely republican history.” Civil marriage, she proclaimed, could now be “truly universal” — thus quite brilliantly suggesting that heterosexual marriage was actually “communitarian” in its current form. Pro-marriage activists also played with the rhetoric of communitarianism and universalism by claiming that what was communitarian was the very idea of gay civil unions, favored by Nicolas Sarkozy and by much of the right.

More recently, in the anti-gay marriage street marches, we can see very clearly once again how the question of the family in France is so intimately tied to republicanism as many anti-gay-marriage protestors explicitly adopted logos and symbols that had been traditionally associated with the republican left.

For example, some of the protestors dressed up as Mariannes with revolution-era Phrygian caps and white peasant dresses, and they decried gay marriage while holding the Civil Code. By identifying these republican symbols with the defense of the heterosexual family, gay marriage becomes essentially foreign, communitarian.

We can also mention here the various references to terrorism and totalitarianism in these debates. One of the anti-gay-marriage groups, the Hommen, portrayed François Hollande walking hand-in-hand with Hitler and Stalin, once again attacking this new law as anti-democratic, anti-republican, anti-French.

The rhetoric of national belonging has also been very interesting within the anti-gender campaign. I mean, already the use of the English term “gender” in France suggests that the concept is fundamentally alien to French society, ultimately untranslatable. What’s rather funny here is that so many American academics turned to French thinkers (Althusser, Lacan, Foucault, Lévi-Strauss, Beauvoir, and others) to develop this notion of gender.

Recently I was reading a text by the philosopher Thibaud Collin, who has written extensively against the “theory of gender,” and I was amused to see how he misspells the name of the feminist theorist Monique Wittig twice as “Monica Wittig” and how he quotes from the English translation of her works rather than the French original. Radical feminism, Collin implies, is an American import, intrinsically incompatible with France.

We can also bring up in this context the attacks against Judith Butler that have taken a particularly violent turn in France, with Butler coming to incarnate not only the “theory of gender” but also homosexuality, gay parenting, and Jewishness. In October 2001, for example, members of the Renouveau Français, a neo-fascist association that regularly marched in the anti-gay-marriage protests, interrupted a ceremony awarding Judith Butler an honoris causa doctorate at the University of Bordeaux.

Dressed in drag, the Renouveau Français heckled Butler during her speech and held up signs such as: “I want a mustache!” and “I want to become a dolphin, can I?” Also in reaction to the Bordeaux event, a video that circulated widely on Catholic and right-wing websites attacked Butler and the “theory of gender” as an “ethnic theory seeking to legitimate homosexuality” and “the fruit of Jewish-American lesbians,” such as Butler and Anne Fausto-Sterling.

These debates around gender and reproduction reveal a fundamental anxiety not only about the heterosexualization of the nation but about its racialization.

In her passionate defense of gay marriage at the Assembly, Taubira, who is originally from French Guiana, insisted on the republican character of the law, on the idea that it would bring about justice and equality for all the children of France. As Taubira “francified” same-sex families, her opponents racialized and foreignized her. Thus, one of the posters of the Manif Pour Tous portrayed her spanking a child with the Civil Code. Another represented her cutting the branches of family trees with a chain saw and another as a gigantic gorilla menacing France.

The same thing is happening with Vallaud-Belkacem right now. Although Vallaud-Belkacem was born in Morocco, she is not only a French citizen but also the perfect product of the French meritocratic academic system as a graduate from the prestigious Science Po. Yet many of the attacks against her on the question of gender have also brought up her Muslim background. As the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles put it, Vallaud-Belkacem was a new “Ayatollah” who “wants to reeducate our children.” Once again, the “theory of gender” is figured as intransigent, totalitarian, foreign, and extremely contagious.

The convergence of racism, Islamophobia, and antisemitism in these protests against gay marriage is very revealing, and it brings to light the true stakes of debate: this is not simply about gender as an academic concept or about gay marriage as a particular law, but about the future of France as a nation.

Will French republicanism remain a closed paradigm frozen in time or will it be able to accommodate the true diversity that exists in France today?