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Radical History Review 83 (2002) 73-93
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The Sexual and Racial Politics of Civil Unions in France
In the fall of 1999 France passed a law that established civil unions (Pacte Civil de Solidarité—PaCS) for gay and heterosexual couples. Supporters of the new law hailed the victory of the plural left and suggested that the PaCS was indeed a law born out of a strong French republican tradition. These supporters further argued that the republican model of national integration, once again, had proven uniquely successful. 1 The laws of the republic granted similar rights to gay and straight couples alike, regardless of their sexual orientation and their group affiliation:
The PaCS refuses to consider citizens as parts of something else, as categories, as "communities," whose boundaries are rather vague, anyway. Rather, it proposes a new way of organizing one's life within a couple without taking account of the sex of each partner or prejudging the nature of the bonds that link them together. 2
In this essay, I propose an analysis of the PaCS law and the parliamentary debates that led to its passage as a way of suggesting a more cautionary stance vis-à-vis the law itself and the political tradition out of which it has emerged. In particular, by tracing links between racism and homophobia in the French context and in the PaCS debates more specifically, I point out dangerous tensions and contradictions within French republican rhetoric.
In the first part of my analysis, I focus on the French street graffiti "Islam = SIDA" [End Page 73] (Islam = AIDS) to examine the ways in which racism and homophobia intersect at a specific historical moment in French political culture. I show how in this slogan Islam works to represent postcolonial immigrants as "barbarians at the gate." 3 In a similar manner, I underscore how AIDS functions to represent queers as deviant and dangerous. In the graffiti "Islam = AIDS," both groups connote threat, criminality, and pollution and are discursively located outside the boundaries of the French republic.
In the second part of the analysis, I turn to the parliamentary debates on the PaCS reform in the fall of 1999 to demonstrate how the two terms of the equation "Islam = AIDS" are not simply linked in a catchy slogan tagged on Parisian walls by hateful right-wing extremists, but in fact figure as part of a discursive whole articulated and disseminated by a large and respectable fraction of the French polity. Indeed, "Islam =AIDS" not only functions as a key subtext to the PaCS debates in France, but it helps us understand how racism and homophobia are central to and intricately linked within contemporary postcolonial Western societies in general and [End Page 74] within postcolonial France more specifically. By delineating continuities between street graffiti and mainstream debates over national legislation, I hope to demonstrate that racism and homophobia, rather than constituting anomalies that occasionally come to disturb the progressive republican agenda, are, in fact, a troubling part of that agenda.
In New Right Discourse on Race and Sexuality, Anna Marie Smith offers a powerful analysis of the ways in which racism and homophobia function as nodal points within contemporary British politics. 4 By focusing on Thatcherism, Powellism, and their position on immigration and homosexuality, Smith explores how a new right discourse emerged in Britain in the mid-eighties that successfully blended the prohibition of the "promotion of homosexuality" and the "regulation of black immigration." 5 She remarks:
The demonization of homosexuality was framed not only in terms of AIDS-panic discourse, but also in terms of Powellian and Thatcherite racism. The Section 28 supporters explicitly linked the promotion of homosexuality with the promotion of multiculturalism. They drew extensively upon already normalized racist metaphors around disease, foreign invasions, unassimilable "other" cultures, dangerous criminals, subversive intellectuals, excessive permissiveness and so on. 6
Smith claims here that the demonization of homosexuality in 1980s Britain became possible and successful precisely because it built on already existing and normalized racist structures within the British state. While Smith recognizes that queer and antiracist...