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  • From the PACS to Parité:Preserving Heterosexual Distinction in 1990s France
  • William Poulin-Deltour (bio)

Vive les mariés! After months of rancorous debate in France’s National Assembly and massive demonstrations against the law granting marriage rights to same-sex couples, France’s first gay couple was legally wed in Montpellier in May 2013. The demonstrators against gay marriage–a coalition of groups mainly representing the Catholic Church, the mainstream and extreme right, and other malcontents of Prime Minister François Hollande’s administration and policies—gathered under the misleading title “La Manif pour tous” (“the demonstration for all”). Their main objection to the law—called “Mariage pour tous”—has not so much been state recognition of gay couples as it is has been giving these couples legal access to children, a procedure limited to adoption for the moment.1 Indeed, the demonstrators speak of the state abusively granting the “right to children” to all French couples regardless of gender composition. Furthermore, they see this threat to the French traditional family as coming from the United States’ “gender ideology” (sic) and tendency to desexualize life, making it therefore impossible “to consider the alterity between men and women as having an irreducible foundation.” This, they worry, puts at risk the foundational reality that “the roles of father and mother are linked to masculinity or femininity.”2

The protests have been reminiscent to those of the late 1990s that accompanied passage of the Pacte Civil de Solidarité (PACS), also under a contested socialist administration that for the first time recognized and extended certain [End Page 76] legal rights to gay and lesbian couples. Given France’s ideology of universalism that formally refuses to establish or “recognize collective rights specific to groups and minorities,”3 the PACS was open to heterosexual couples as well. The rights associated with the PACS were similar in nature yet decidedly inferior to marriage. In particular, it established no official kinship ties between partners, thereby rendering same-sex couples ineligible, for example, to adopt children. It therefore denied family status to same-sex couples, and in doing so placated some—on both the right and the left—who worried aloud that, much like the “Manif pour tous” professes today, granting legal rights to establish family ties to same-sex couples would threaten French civilization by tampering with the irreducible différence des sexes.

At more or less the same time, France’s socialist government also undertook substantial reforms to increase women’s participation in electoral politics. The French National Assembly amended the constitution to include an article declaring the Republic’s responsibility in promoting women’s participation in elections. This led to the passage of a new series of measures under the term parité that by the end of the 1990s officially obligated all political parties to take measures to have as many female as male candidates in all electoral campaigns.

Interpreted by the French Socialist Party as definitive emblems of social progress reflecting new realities and correcting age-old inequalities, both reforms were extremely controversial outside and within France’s lesbian and gay and feminist milieus. Although some lesbian and gay activists valued the PACS for its universal nature, others deplored what they took to be its elision of same-sex couples as well as the fact that marriage remained out of reach for them. Likewise, if some feminists were quite enthused by parité’s promise to increase French women’s role in politics, there was also concern that the measure essentialized and naturalized heterosexual difference, and worked against other underrepresented social groups making similar claims for political representation.

The two developments garnered some attention on the part of American observers, queer and feminist alike. Much of this attention was positive; a number of queer theorists found in the PACS an intriguing alternative to same-sex marriage, one that supposedly took the state out of the bedroom and initiated new and ingenious forms of coupledom. Likewise, some feminist scholars found that the measures included in parité to promote women’s political participation were quite imaginative in their manipulation and transformation of the abstract and universal individual and had the potential, in the long run, to diminish...


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