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social sciences

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The idea that one's private life should be separate from--and at all times subordinated to--one's public life of national and civic duty is an integral tenet of French social thought, actively enshrined in law (Code civil, Article 9), and it has widely shaped French attitudes to queer sexualities throughout the modern era.

Where the French judiciary, for instance, historically paid little or no heed to homosexual activity conducted behind closed doors, whether those of the private boudoir or commercial venue, they were rigorous in policing public manifestations of same-sex activity because these were deemed a gross offense against public decency and, thus, a threat to social stability.

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It is argued that the traditional confinement of women to the private realm of the domestic sphere meant that lesbianism in France benefited particularly from the revolutionary tradition of privatized liberty. While certainly not immune from social regulation or homophobic censure, female homosexuality was, as Catherine van Casselaer notes, largely "able to avoid serious moral condemnation" throughout much of modern French history by remaining firmly private and "inhabiting the no-go areas between [the] ethical boundaries" of French society.

Given the staunchly patriarchal cast of French society, however, one wonders how much this apparent inattention to lesbianism was due simply to the broader cultural devaluation of women and a general refusal to take seriously female sexuality at large.

Even today, while attitudes vary enormously, most French remain remarkably indifferent to people's sexuality, believing it to be something private and discreet. It is for this reason that the public disclosure of one's sexual orientation, whether in terms of a voluntary "coming out" or an enforced "outing," so central to Anglo-American glbtq politics, has not traditionally been an integral part of French life.

When, in 1999 for example, the Socialist politician, Bertrand Delanoë announced his homosexuality on national television--the first French politician ever to do so--the disclosure caused surprisingly little commotion at a national level other than to provoke a debate about the relevance of private issues to public politics.

The French Exception

Accompanying the relative French indifference to private sexualities is the corresponding idea of a universal public or national citizenship rooted in absolute common ideals. Frequently termed "the French exception" (l'exception française), it is the distinctly Gallic belief that everyone is, first and foremost, French, and that all else is secondary: "one nation, one people, one culture" (une nation, un peuple, une culture).

As a grounding model of social and political subjecthood, the philosophy of universal French exceptionalism has variable advantages and disadvantages for glbtq people. On the plus side, it has enabled important queer political gains. Most of the battles fought and advances made in French glbtq movements have been explicitly organized around claims for full and equal citizenship under French law.

Throughout the 1970s, a period of comparative radical activism in French queer politics, glbtq groups such as FHAR (Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action), GLH (Homosexual Liberation Groups), and CUARH (Anti-Homosexual Repression Urgency Committee) militated successfully against the only two statutes in French law to discriminate specifically between heterosexual and homosexual citizens: differential ages of consent and penalties for public sex.

More recently, glbtq activists helped pass the 1999 Civil Solidarity Pact (Pacte Civil de Solidarité), which removed legal distinctions between married and unmarried couples regardless of gender, effectively granting homosexual couples the same civil and economic rights as their straight counterparts. In all these political reforms, focus has been on glbtq people less as members of a specific community than as full citizens of the French republic with entitlement to the same rights as all others.

The principle of French exceptionalism equally presents potential liabilities for glbtq people. Its investment in a structure of universal assimilation to prescribed ideals curtails its ability to accommodate diversity--whether sexual, cultural, or ethnic--other than as something to be integrated into the national whole. As such, it is a model of citizenship that arguably elides queer differences, accepting glbtq sexualities and people only to the extent that they conform to orthodox social norms.

The French cultural demand that all social groups subordinate their differences to a republican universalism also stymies the development of community and, by implication, collective political agency among French glbtq people.

Some commentators, for example, blame the tardiness and relative inefficiency of the French response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s on a lack of queer communitarian organization. With little concept of themselves as a social collective and no real community infrastructure through which to mobilize politically and/or to disseminate safe sex information, French glbtq people, it is suggested, were ill equipped to deal with the onslaught of AIDS and, as a result, suffered greater losses than in many other European countries.

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