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MIT Better World

By Kathryn M. O’Neill

The Cynthia L. Reed Professor of French Studies and Language in MIT’s Global Studies and Languages section, Perreau particularly zeros in on the political conflict contemporary France has faced over gay marriage, adoption, and bioethics. The mirror he holds up to his home country is not always flattering; nevertheless, the nation has recognized its importance. In 2016, Perreau was named a Chevalier in the Order of Academic Palms, a prestigious award that recognizes exemplary academic contributions to French education and culture.

“Discrimination is constantly changing,” says Perreau, whose most recent book, Queer Theory: The French Response (Stanford University Press, 2016), explores the arguments made against gay marriage in France. “You always have to be one step ahead in terms of the legal struggle.”

Queer Theory builds on a body of research Perreau began as a PhD student in political science at the Sorbonne in the late 1990s. At the time, France was hotly debating two laws related to gender: civil unions for gay couples and a parity law that requires political parties to nominate equal numbers of female and male candidates.

Both debates revolved around the idea that the law should reflect nature, a point that fascinated Perreau. “In the late 20th, beginning of the 21st century, why do we still need to pretend we make decisions that are mimetic of nature?” he says.

To explore this question, Perreau investigated the rules and regulations surrounding adoption, a process that is inherently artificial, yet in France remains centered on imitating biology (the process even takes nine months). “Adoption does not need nature to function,” he says. “[Thus,] adoption makes obvious the fact that any family is a social construct. Even if in some cases indeed it is based on nature.”

The result of this research was Perreau’s 2014 book, The Politics of Adoption: Gender and the Making of French Citizenship (The MIT Press), in which he argues that French identity is tied to traditional gender and family roles in a way that makes it challenging to address the issues of minorities, such as gay couples. “The more I delved into studying adoption, the more I discovered how important this fantasy of nature was in the way France imagined its own identity,” he says.

Perreau examines another aspect of French identity in Queer Theory. Noting that protesters of gay marriage characterized the bill as an “invasion” of France by an American academic theory, Perreau says Queer Theory points out that “playing the anti-American card” resonated, even though the theory in question is actually rooted in a late-20th-century French philosophical movement called post-structuralism.

What these stories have in common, Perreau asserts, is an “imagined Frenchness” that is monolithic and thus not open to reinvention— an idea that is explored further in Les défis de la République: Genre, territoires, citoyenneté (Presses de Sciences Po, 2017), a volume of essays Perreau co-edited with Joan W. Scott on the challenges that minority agendas pose to the French foundational belief in universal equality. The book’s eight contributors address the impact of demands for voting rights for noncitizens, gay rights, and gender parity in access to political office.

The takeaway point, Perreau says, is that efforts to expand the social contract to include new groups challenge the status quo and therefore require new ways of thinking about majority rule—the foundation of democracy both in France and in the United States.

“Majority rule is made possible by the principle that supposes that if you delegate your voice, you think your voice will survive in the person to whom you’ve delegated it. If you are a minority, this is not that obvious,” Perreau says. “Something needs to be reinvented.”