Protests in France are more than a battle over culture
In many of the same French squares and streets that were occupied in the general strikes of 1968, a new generation has been re-inventing the art of protest for the age of Twitter. Their focus has been opposing a law that would legalize gay marriage, which is expected to pass a final legislative hurdle on Tuesday. Although the protests may be misdirected, they are a symptom of the crisis this generation faces in influencing its government and economy in France.
For a generation that is staring at a “lost decade” of economic stagnation and joblessness, this protest seems like a form of escapism to observers. With economic and political spheres surrendered to global markets and German politicians, the protesters may be trying to reclaim ownership of the cultural sphere by seizing on the gay marriage proposal. This desire for individuality within the euro zone was, in fact, the same effort that led the French government to introduce the proposal in the first place.
This predominantly Catholic revolution without leaders has spawned a new organization – le Printemps Français, or the French Spring – that compares the fight against gay marriage to the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2010.
The majority of the troops in this culture war are the children of the 1968 generation in France. Le Monde has pointed to a new generation of right-wing activists taking to the streets of Paris and other French towns to declare war on their parents’ sexual permissiveness.
The Web pages for the movement mark the progression of demonstrations that have attracted hundreds of thousands of participants, as well as a petition that has attracted more than 700,000 signatures. Since November, they have been congregating nightly outside the French National Assembly building in Paris and have used social media to recruit members and spread word about the fight.
Like the Tea Party in the United States, the French protest movement has a religious undertone. Several of the Catholic blogs, such as Le Rouge et le Noir (“The Red and the Black”), carry a call to arms by Vivien Hoch, a media-savvy theology student, that was broadcast on the right-wing radio station Radio Courtoisie in early April. Hoch said, “France’s youth has suffered profoundly as a result of … May ’68. We grew up in a society with no bearings, norms or values in the throes of moral and intellectual collapse, with degenerate art … and a daily insult to the sacred.” Hoch calls for “a revolution in reverse” – a May 2013 movement that will mark a “progression to the divine” through its rejection of the protests of May 1968. The theme of personal suffering is picked up by Carol Ardent, who runs the Rouge et le Noir blog. She claims that many of the young demonstrators come from broken homes and grew up longing for the stability of a more present mother and father.
The growing frustration with the generation of 1968 was captured two decades ago by the controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose literary reputation has been built around a denunciation of the social effects of the hippie generation and the children – such as himself – who were abandoned by their parents. His extraordinary first novel, L’extension du Domaine de la Lutte, (“The Extension of the Struggle”) published in 1994, is a powerful denunciation of the effects of the Sexual Revolution. As he writes, the dynamics of the market spread to the sexual realm in the 1960s: “Sexual liberalism is … an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.” The main character explains that 1968 did not lead to the sexual communism – from each according to his ability to each according to his needs –but rather that the winners enjoyed rich and varied sex lives and the losers were reduced to a life of “solitude and masturbation.”
The paradox of the current demonstrations against gay marriage is that the law, if passed, is not intended to have the effects that the demonstrators say they are worried about. Rather than creating greater sexual liberation, the notion of gay marriage in France is about the re-regulation of a domain that was the most free from structure and norms. The law is designed to rein in sexual liberation by making available the institutions of heterosexual bourgeois monogamy to the gay community.
Regardless of that misunderstanding, the fact that the gay marriage law has proved to be such a mobilizing issue tells us something about France’s crisis and how its politics are evolving. The protests are not an “extension” of the struggle that Houellebecq describes, they instead point to a shrinking political realm. The fact that the generation of the financial crisis is being politicized by sexual politics shows how little hope they have of controlling economic decision-making. If no alternative is available on economic issues, politics will be reduced to symbolic battles about social issues. In that sense, France’s culture wars may be the ultimate product of German economic hegemony.
PHOTO: French gendarmes in riot gear stand guard as gay marriage opponents shout slogans after the “Manif pour Tous” (Demonstration for All) protest march against France’s planned legalisation of same-sex marriage near the Invalides in Paris, April 21, 2013. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes