In everything but name, France’s Parliament system is in the throes of a filibuster.
Since Feb. 2, when the Socialist majority in the National Assembly voted to redefine marriage as an agreement between two people of the same or opposite sex, the conservative opposition has filed more than 5,000 amendments, none of which they expect to pass into law, in order to drag out the nation’s seemingly ineluctable march to legal recognition of gay marriage.
Many of the proposed amendments are meant to outrage: A member of the U.M.P., the neo-Gaullist party leading the resistance, demanded that incestuous and polygamous marriages also be legalized in the name of equal rights.
But, of course, the impact of such provocations can only be diluted when so many are launched. During the first weekend of the debate, the transcript of the proceedings, announced Le Monde, weighed in at more than 240,000 words.
For all of its excess — one of the opposition’s leaders is Frigide Bardot, the stage name of brash comedian who describes herself, after a pilgrimage to Lourdes, as “Jesus’ press attachée” — the debate reflects a deep and abiding moral and ideological divide in France.
At the heart of the matter is the meaning of the trio of revolutionary values — liberty, equality and fraternity — that France has made its own since 1789. In essence, how are these powerful but abstract rights to be applied when it comes to sexuality and parenting? And nowhere is the complexity and importance of the affair better and more brilliantly expressed than in the debate between two of France’s most influential intellectuals: Elisabeth Badinter and Sylviane Agacinski.
Both are professional philosophers, both are republicans, both are on the political left, and both are married to towering political figures. Robert Badinter was minister of justice under François Mitterrand, while Agacinski is the wife of Lionel Jospin, who served as a Socialist prime minister.
And yet, despite — or perhaps because of — these commonalities, Badinter and Agacinski have repeatedly clashed over the character and implications of equality. In particular, they have fiercely disagreed over the role of gender and sex in the republican scheme of things.
The two first crossed swords in the 1990s during the debate over “parité.” A number of women’s groups, exasperated by the persistently small percentage of women in political office, argued for a law imposing sexual parity in political office.
Agacinski rallied to the cause: She felt that the Enlightenment conception of equality, abstract and universal, superbly ignored the flesh and blood realities of human existence. Yet it was only “natural,” given the revolution’s emphasis on “fraternity,” that 18th century men believed they were more equal than women. Can one blame them?
As Agacinski observed, no matter how much you try to abstract equality from the world, the world — or, more precisely, our biology — will always pull you back. Life’s fundamental dichotomy is the biological difference between a man and a woman. Rather than pretending that this difference can be transcended, Agacinski insisted on its recognition. Hence the importance of political parity: Only by acknowledging the difference between the sexes could inequitable situations be remedied.
The law was passed in 1999, despite the formidable barricade thrown up by Elisabeth Badinter. On the eve of the vote, she published an open letter in which she denounced the anti-republican essence of the proposed law. In fact, essence was the problem: Badinter rejected what amounted to Agacinski’s “essentialist” claims concerning sexual differences. If France were to mandate political parity, she warned, it would mock revolutionary France’s liberating credo, one based on the universal character of human rights.
Attributing rights based on difference instead of sameness would reduce the nation to a motley collection of tribes, each pursuing its own instead of the nation’s interest. France would become little better than America, where the range of hyphenated citizens would be as varied as the coffees at Starbucks.
A decade later, the political context has changed, but the positions staked out by these antagonists are the same.
For both women, the struggle is less over gay marriage — Agacinski has overcome her earlier diffidence on the subject and now supports its legalization — than over gay adoption and parenting. In a number of books and articles, Agacinski worries that the legal and medical advances that allow homosexual couples to adopt or procreate will unravel society’s fabric. The family, she affirms, is yoked to biological filiation.
If we truly sought what is most universal in our lives, we could go no further than the fact that “a child can only issue from a father and mother, that is to say a man and a woman.” We ignore this “fundamental value” only at our own and society’s peril, Agacinski warns. Most alarming, in her eyes, is the burgeoning market in surrogate mothers, women engaged in what she calls “a commerce in human beings.”
Where Agacinski glimpses the end of civilization as we know it, Badinter sees civilization as we should know it. “I’m fed up with those who label this an economic exchange,” she says.
Desire, not biology, is essential: The family, she contends, is the “convergence of individual liberty and shared goals.” It is immaterial whether a couple’s child issues directly from the couple or a surrogate mother. If anything is sacred, it is not the womb, but a couple’s desire, whether they are infertile or gay, to raise a child.
The irony, for Badinter, is that scarcely a generation ago parents were compelled by law to have children they did not want, while parents who do want children today are prevented by law from doing so. The distance from anti-abortion to anti-gay legislation, she suggests, is shorter than we might think.
In fact, the distance between these struggles and 1789 is also shorter than it might first appear. Both Agacinski and Badinter, after all, claim their respective positions have universal foundations. For Badinter, our common humanity is founded upon human reason, whereas for Agacinski it issues from the universal character of human nature. It turns out that even universalism is not universal.
Badinter lost the first round of her debate with Agacinski when the parity law passed; if public opinion polls on the issue of gay marriage and adoption are reliable, it seems certain Agacinski will lose the second round.
But this remarkable match between these philosophers, and the popular forces they represent, will not be resolved anytime soon. The future of the past has many more than 15 rounds in store for us — and this, perhaps, is yet another universal truth.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College.