IN EARLY 2013, the streets of several French cities overflowed with massive protests against a law extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. At one such demonstration in Paris in March, police estimated 300,000 participants; the organizers put the number closer to a million. It was a boisterous crowd, deploying a dizzying menagerie of free-floating signifiers: the French Marianne walked alongside Gavroche from Les Misérables, a group of Antigones, bare-chested “Hommen” (modeled after the bare-breasted activists of Femen), racist caricatures next to repurposed antiracist slogans from the 1980s. The citational mania, to say nothing of a puzzling tendency toward male nudity, suggested nothing so much as a gay pride march.
Country after country has legalized gay marriage over the last few years — whether by parliamentary measures, by plebiscite, or by high court decision. Nowhere has the opposition been as vociferous as in France. “Of all places,” one was tempted to say at the time. The nature and origins of that response are Bruno Perreau’s topic in Queer Theory: The French Response. The book wants to explain why such protests should be bubbling up in France, of all places. While the bill in question promised “marriage for everybody” (mariage pour tous), its protesters claimed they were, somewhat bafflingly, engaged in a “protest for everybody” (manif pour tous). How can both sides in the French gay marriage debate claim to represent a right for “everybody”? The answer turns on a specifically French relationship to the idea of particularized community, and on a far more international tactic of tribal universalism characteristic of the contemporary far right.
Much like far-right movements across Western Europe, Marine Le Pen’s Front National party has tried to avoid overt displays of homophobia. Several of its more prominent members, such as party vice president Florian Philippot, are gay. So while the manif pour tous was a creature of the far right, it was one that Marine Le Pen was careful not to embrace. This is partly because she didn’t have to; as Perreau demonstrates, “the idea of invasion” — by gays, Jews, immigrants, or nonwhites — “creates unlikely alliances between some groups that demand freedom of conscience and expression from a democratic government they consider corrupted by internationalist minorities.” The nationalism, anti-Semitism, revanchism, and xenophobia that Le Pen traffics in are deeply connected to the homophobia of the manif pour tous. That connection was explicitly manifested just two days after the first round of the French présidentielle earlier this year, when the manif endorsed Le Pen and declared that, for French families, “Macron, c’est non!” Le Pen was able to consolidate the support of the manif pour tous without having to explicitly embrace or publicly own its anti-gay politics.
Perreau’s book seeks to understand one particular fantasy of ideological invasion that holds this right-wing coalition together. Among the accusations the manif’s president, Ludovine de La Rochère, leveled against the now-elected president of the French Republic was that Macron would continue “gender identity.” The charge likely strikes American readers as utterly bizarre, not the least of which because de La Rochère didn’t explain herself, nor what it would mean to not continue “gender identity.” Once again, she didn’t have to. When the manif pour tous attacked the gay marriage bill sponsored by justice minister Christiane Taubira, the main target of their anger was an alleged invasion by “la théorie du genre,” by which they meant queer theory, specifically the work of Judith Butler.
In telling the story of France’s encounter with queer theory, Perreau’s book gets at the heart of the role sexuality plays in the reactionary populist movements that have sprung up across the Western world. The “French Response” the book traces has little to do with the lecture halls and seminars that might populate the Francophilic imaginaries of Americans whose encounters with French intellectual culture are derived from syllabi selections from the likes of Lacan or Foucault, Barthes or Badiou. Perreau charts two paths for queer theory out of and into France. One half of The French Response deals with the mythic “théorie du genre” that allegedly invaded from across the Atlantic. The other half handles the very real American scholarly output inspired by “French theory” and then reabsorbed by French academics and activists. Perreau clearly wants his book to engage with both queer theory and the uses to which it has been put, and some readers may find it a bit jarring to see the book survey the trenches from on high, only to then swoop down at certain moments. But Perreau’s overarching point is that France is having a conversation about a fictional version of queer theory that it should not be having, in lieu of a conversation about actual queer theory that it very much should be having.
Gayness as Agenda
In the United States, queer theory was noticeably ambivalent about gay marriage. At key gay marriage court cases like Romer v. Evans, it was not Judith Butler who gave testimony, but her frequent critic Martha Nussbaum. Butler’s own response to the debate remained muted throughout. So, how did Butler come to matter to the French debate about mariage pour tous? Ironically enough, Butler and her confederates mattered not as a proponent (or opponent) of gay marriage, but as a proponent of something beyond marriage. The French right understood the gay marriage law facing their country, in the words of Béatrice Bourges of “Printemps français,” as “part of a catastrophic program to impose gender theory.” By “gender theory,” they meant some never-specified mix of undoing the concept of gender, upending traditional gender roles, and advancing trans rights. The manif pour tous practices a homophobic Gnosticism: in a world in which homophobia is a harder and harder thing to express in public without losing one’s audience, the manif no longer presented itself as opposing gay marriage as such, but rather as opposing the sinister agenda that allegedly stood behind the push for gay marriage.
Perreau argues that the French allergy to “gender theory” is not focused just on the “gender” part, but also encompasses the “theory” part. While the US academy has long understood “theory” as a French import (and indeed sometimes as a French invasion), the French right sees itself on the receiving end of untested ideas that have been vomited out by American academics and imposed on French children as though they were test subjects for new experiments in social design from across the Atlantic. They ignore, of course, the irony that this deliberate misreading of “theory” is itself an import from US creationism. Pointing out that evolution is “just a theory,” and implying that this makes it just as valid or invalid as any other belief one might have, has been part of the Christian right’s discursive arsenal since the ’80s.
At its core, the animus against queer theory belies a paranoia about social and cultural penetration by a concept, what Perreau calls the “fear of a queer invasion from the United States.” “Gender theory” works for the French right in much the same way as “political correctness” has worked for its more secular correlate in US conservatism: it allows for the indiscriminate bundling of ideas, positions, and incidents. It serves to collapse internal difference, to give any single data point universal force, such that any tiny thing someone was or was not allowed to do in one school somehow means that “Western values” as such are under attack. Similarly, it performs a sort of Nietzschean transvaluation of the categories of victimizer and victim: the bully whose hand was unfairly stayed emerges as the true victim.
Homophobia without Homophobes
While the response Perreau chronicles in his book is peculiarly French, it is also indicative of the way in which sexuality functions in an age of the resurgent right, what we might call the age of homophobia without homophobes. The Front National profited from anti-gay protests without ever lending open support to their message, a maneuver that has entered the far-right playbook elsewhere. At the Republican National Convention, Peter Thiel claimed that “every American has a unique identity,” and that he is “proud to be gay” and “proud to be a Republican,” only to then accuse those fighting for equal access of waging “fake culture wars,” all to rapturous applause. Folding gay people into some kind of new universal, yet decrying any specific reference to them as divisive was pioneered in Europe, but has made the leap across the Atlantic.
European journalists and media personalities report about the presence of gays and lesbians voting for far-right parties in the same tones they use when reacting to two-time Obama voters who cast their ballot for Trump. Their existence provide conservatives with living, breathing, clean-shaven, always male, and always white sign that their parties and organizations cannot possibly be motivated by homophobia. They’ve got gay people on board, after all!
No one has anything against gay people, bien sûr. There have been no French anti-sodomy laws on the books in France since 1791. Even the Vichy regime only tinkered with age of consent laws, while in German-occupied France gay men were sent to concentration camps. But France has an equally long tradition of regulating specific practices differently depending on who practices them: prostitution, indecent exposure, public incitement, obscenity, even dancing. Perreau doesn’t quite come out and say it, but the outcry over “gender theory” places politics, and indeed theory, in the same tradition. Political access for gays is one thing, but a specifically LGBT politics is a form of indecent exposure.
The Front National is for gay rights as long as gay people stand in for something other than themselves, so long as gay people manage by some wondrous alchemy to be a universal everybody that is under assault. In a 2010 speech, Marine Le Pen remarked: “I’m hearing more and more stories about the fact that in certain neighborhoods it’s not good to be a woman, or a homosexual, or a Jew, or even French or white.” The slippage here is breathtaking — as her focus widens, a few words suffice to reinterpret various minorities being threatened on the street into the white, straight French majority being deprived of its natural right. Perreau suggests that in such moments, queerness finds itself in a kind of double bind in France’s tug of war between communitarianism and universalism. The Front National is happy to understand gay rights as universal when doing so serves to unite a white, Christian image of France against Muslims. But there is a pronounced resistance to tethering rights and questions of access to a specific community. Gay rights aren’t gay, you see, but rather stand-ins for a more universal sense of French rights.
“The FN is not ‘gay friendly,’” Philippot once declared in an interview, using the English term, “It is ‘French friendly.’” Remarks like this appear to play the universal against the particular community, but their universalist plea is in bad faith. The French right has for decades functioned as a repository of particularized interests — the region, the milieu, the faith — without admitting that these were particularized interests at all. It had to operate in the context of a republican system deeply suspicious of any cloistered or separate communities, and that has made all the difference in their political discourse. Increasingly, the European right has reconciled this contradiction by declaring universalism (French laïcité, for instance) grounds for communitarian organization. To preserve openness, they argue, you have to keep the insufficiently open ones out.
Whether it is the Front National or the Catholic right, this kind of politics has made an implicit distinction between legitimate and illegitimate communities. For its part, the United States, more open to balkanization, replays a similar dynamic when it tries to decide who lives in “bubbles” and whose fault that is. The tribe is defined, then, as anti-tribal. This lies behind one of the striking features that France’s anti-gay right shares with its Trumpist cousin across the Atlantic: its willingness to appropriate in one breath the discourses of identity, and then thoroughly deny their legitimacy in the next.
It is likely this faux universalism that stands behind the manif pour tous’s distinct mode of occupying public space. Gay people become useful to such discourses insofar as they are placeless: in abstraction, their rights are quickly invoked when it comes to protecting them, especially from an imaginary threat at the hands of a racial Other presumed to be hostile to their rights (and thus, all French rights). But the moment gayness actually asserts itself, it is understood to have necessarily overasserted itself. One suspects that this was the point of the manif pour tous’s exuberant, cacophonous, and oddly shirtless colonization of public space in protesting gay marriage. Here, the community that told itself it was everybody celebrated assertiveness for assertiveness’s sake. “We get to be campy,” the marchers seemed to say, “you don’t. We are everybody.” And of course, they also seemed to be saying: “Unless you’re content to be part of everybody, you don’t exist.”