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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 15.2 (2004) 32-53

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French Universalism in the Nineties

This article tells a story about a French feminist attempt to refigure universalism in the 1990s in a movement for gender equality in politics that they called parité.1 It is a story that addresses a set of questions much debated by philosophers and psychoanalysts, to say nothing of feminists: What is the relationship between anatomical difference and its symbolic representation? Is sexual difference (understood as a psychic not an anatomical reality) a fixed or mutable phenomenon? These questions are at the heart of countless theoretical debates and, for many feminists they have required "an obligatory detour via philosophy" (Schor 17). My story, following the hunch of the parité movement as well as my own disciplinary inclination, takes a different route, seeking its insights not so much in philosophy as in history.

French politics in the 1990s was full of debates about universalism. Whatever the issue—citizenship for North African immigrants, greater access to political office for women, or domestic partnership for homosexual couples (to take only the most prominent)—its proponents and [End Page 32] critics framed their arguments as critiques of, appeals to, or defenses of a universalism thought to be distinctively French. And not just French, but republican. Universalism was taken to be the defining trait of the French republic, its most enduring value, its most precious asset. To accuse someone of betraying universalism was tantamount to accusing them of treason.

It is important to note that the debates about universalism in the 1990s were not confined (as they were in that period in the U.S.) to lofty academic circles or arcane theoretical texts. They were instead at the very center of politics: they resounded in the National Assembly and filled the pages of daily newspapers. Nor was universalism just a slogan; it was a serious (if disputed) philosophical concept. For many Americans, the high level of French political discourse is surprising, and the key role intellectuals can play in the articulation of public policy is enviable. There is no less corruption or dishonesty there than here, but there is a lot more intelligent reflection, and political strategy is more often formulated with an eye to its philosophical implications since these are a recognized part of the political stakes.

The story I want to tell here centers on a feminist movement that sought to refigure the terms of universalism in order to increase the numbers of women in elected office. The point was not to press for antidiscrimination or affirmative action measures, but to guarantee an equal number of seats for women and men. The partial realization of that goal came with the law of June 6, 2000, which requires (with typically complex variations) that half of all candidates for political office be women. The argument for parité was neither essentialist nor separatist; it was not about the particular qualities women would bring to politics, nor about the need to represent a special women's interest. Instead—and this is what has intrigued me since I began reading about it—the argument for parité was rigorously universalist.

Before I begin to tell the story of this compelling movement, however, I think it is necessary to define universalism. And I will do that with a look at its history.

French universalism in the 1990s—at least in the realm of politics—was a mythologized restatement of the principles of 1789. Those who vociferously defended the values and ideals of the Republic against the threat of what was most often described as American multiculturalism saw [End Page 33] themselves as protectors of a distinctively French conception of political representation. This conception rested on two related abstractions: that of the individual and that of the nation. The nation was the expression of the people's will, articulated by its representatives. These representatives were not (as had been the case under the Old Regime) spokesmen for various corporate interests; instead each stood for the collectivity as a whole...


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pp. 32-53
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Archived 2004
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