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  • How the Symbolic Became French:Kinship and Republicanism in the PACS Debates
  • Camille Robcis (bio)

"In ordinary societies, one stipulates for oneself, for obscure and private interests, and as the sovereign master of one's own fortune. In marriage, one stipulates not only for oneself, but for the other; one pledges to become the providence of the new family to which one will give a being; one stipulates for the State, one stipulates for the general society of humankind. The public is thus always involved in questions of marriage [. . .]. Conjugal society does not resemble any other."1

—Jean-Etienne-Marie Portalis, Preliminary Discourse to the French Civil Code

In June 2004, Noël Mamère, the mayor of Bègles, a small town in southwest France, decided to follow the example set by Gavin Newsom in San Francisco a few months earlier, by celebrating the first gay marriage in France. Mamère's highly mediatized resolution unleashed a polemic which, to observers on the other side of the Atlantic, appeared somewhat strange or at least puzzling. [End Page 110] While George W. Bush was invoking God and morality to promote a constitutional amendment which would limit marriage to a man and a woman, French politicians were turning to a different set of arguments and vocabulary. Patrick Delnatte for instance, a deputy from the center-right, told the newspaper Libération that for him, gay marriage represented an "impasse. [. . .] I respect the different ways of living one's sexuality, there is no question of homophobia, but the Republican marriage answers to our anthropological principles [le mariage républicain répond à nos principes anthropologiques]. Homosexuality is not a social model that allows society to continue [qui permet à la société de perdurer]; it is contrary to the existence of sexual difference [l'altérité de sexes] which founds marriage" (Rotman). In the months following Mamère's announcement, all major French publications ran almost daily articles on gay marriage which inevitably echoed the same terminology: "Republicanism," "anthropological principles," "difference of the sexes," and (non-) "homophobia." This essay is an attempt to come to terms with the particular character of the debate over same-sex unions in France. More precisely, it seeks to understand how an elected representative, such as Delnatte, can refer in a widely circulating newspaper—in almost a single breath—to concepts of Republicanism, anthropological principles, and sexual difference, presenting these concepts as self-evident arguments against gay marriage. How is it that these terms, borrowed from the most complex philosophical and political register, have been marshaled in opposition to same-sex marriage, just like God and morality have in the United States?

Although Mamère's act of "civil disobedience" appeared to take France a bit by surprise, debates over gay unions were hardly new. In fact, France already had its own version of domestic partnership open to same-sex couples, the PACS or Pacte Civil de Solidarité, which was passed by the National Assembly, headed by leftist prime minister Lionel Jospin, in October 1999, following at least a decade of widely publicized debates. In its last phase, the PACS was designed to provide a series of legal benefits traditionally associated with marriage—such as tax breaks, housing rights, inheritance, and health insurance—to more loosely defined "couples," independent of their sexual orientation. As the law defines it, a PACS is "a contract entered into by two physical persons of legal age, of different sexes or of the same sex, to organize their common life" (Bach-Ignasse and Roussel 259). In what follows, I will briefly outline the crucial terms of the PACS debates to better orient the larger context of French political culture in which this article attempts to intervene. [End Page 111]

Demands for civil unions in France initially came from heterosexual couples who, by the late seventies, were increasingly shying away from marriage and requesting from their local mayors certificates of "concubinage," the legal term for domestic partnership. However, it became clear throughout the eighties that same-sex couples also needed some kind of protection at the state level, as the AIDS crisis began to dramatically highlight the legal and practical problems encountered by same-sex...


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