There’s been quite a bit of media confusion and consternation about the astonishingly large French protests against gay marriage and adoption that occurred the other day. In the end, I feel just about as confused as anybody, but I would like to point out a couple of things here:
- One of my constant refrains in translating French politics to Americans has been that the version of France that we get here, the New York Times and Washington Post version, is only a very limited perspective on what France is today. It’s only based on this narrow vision that something like these protests (or, in my own work*, the popularity of Nicolas Sarkozy) seem surprising. there’s a vast, working class, disenfranchised and non-Parisian French population that most Americans have almost no sense of.
- But it’s not only left-leaning American academics who seem to have no sense of the sector of societé, it’s the French technocratic elite as well. Whether or not Hollande is right about this issue (which he unquestionably is), every account of what’s happens suggests that he and his government were completely taken aback by the reaction–this was supposed to be an easy no-brainer that would slide through. The very fact that they “didn’t see it coming” is both instructive and indicative of a larger pathology in French political culture: even in my own, limited, anthropologist-as-bumbling-neophyte way, and even while hanging out with (mostly) libertine-esque Parisian artists and leftists, I knew there were strange undercurrents of homophobia; blockages from unexpected people towards thinking about homosexuality as a human lifestyle. Whether or not I agree with Hollande (and, again, I find it impossible not to), or share many of the same basic assumption about the world (which I probably do), these protests point once again to the fact that France’s technocratic elite are pathologically detached and unaccountable from the people in whose name they govern. I’m not the first to make that argument–Bourdieu and many others beat me to it–but I have tried to emphasize how this disconnect offers a challenge for French political life while also opening the door to the kind of right-wing populism utilized by Nicolas Sarkozy and his supporters. You can seen it in the less-than-earnest response by Sarkozy protege Jean Francois Cope, but also in the insistance by Hollande and crew that things will move forward as planned no matter what.
- This utter failure by social scientists and politicians to understand a large sector of French (and, I think, American) public life is a shame. It’s a shame because i think there are real lessons to be learned here about something i really don’t understand. And I really don’t get it; I really don’t get the affect nor the target. On either side of the Atlantic (although one thing I do get is labeling it an American conspiracy gets us close to nowhere). For example: one thing that should be thrown into stark relief about the American version of these debates by the French ones is that whatever this is about (and, again, i have no real clue) it is not merely adherence to a religious tradition. Since the French have spent the last 10+ years stoking fears of “Islamists” importing religion into the public sphere, the gay marriage debate has largely avoided the issue. but yet the target and the stance is the same. Doesn’t tghis make us question how much the U.S. debate is “really” about religion and how much religion is merely the idiom through which the debate happens? i think it does. Although i don’t know if this gets us any closer to explaining what’s going on, it sure helps in knowing what kinds of explanations to avoid.
*This article is behind a paywall. If you have access to it, i prefer you use the above link. if not, you can find it available here