Scott Gunther: "Le Marais: The Indifferent Ghetto"


[reprinted with permission from The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Winter 1999, Volume VI, Number 1, page 34 - Click here for Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review website ]

"Le Marais: The Indifferent Ghetto"

SCOTT GUNTHER (E-mail or homepage )

Between the Pompidou Center and the Bastille, a small district of Paris, the Marais, has undergone a radical transformation over the last twenty years. In that time, this affluent area in the oldest part of Paris has become France’s answer to the American-style "gay ghetto"—albeit a reluctant ghetto by U.S. standards.

It began in 1978 with the opening of Le Village, a new bar in the heart of Le Marais, which presented itself as an alternative to the nocturnal homosexual life that occurred in the shadows of the Opera House on the rue Sainte-Anne. Le Village symbolized a new kind of visibility: open both day and night and offering beer for the meager sum of 10 francs, the bar attracted large crowds at once. Waves of entrepreneurs followed over the next decade, investing not only in bars but in restaurants, boutiques, inns, and so on. The result has been the transformation not only of a neighborhood but of Parisian gay life in general.

Now, twenty years later, the opening of Le Village might be seen for its mythic significance in founding a post-Stonewall gay identity in France. Proclaimed the first issue of La revue h:

From Le Village to the Duplex, from the Piano Zinc to Le Central, the gay quarter set itself up in the 1980’s. ... Today, we have attained a new level with boutiques, nightclubs, a bookstore, postcard shops, sex shops, restaurants, bars, clothing stores (as well as laundromats), and recently a pharmacy waving the gay flag which was inaugurated by "the entire community." Paris could at last have the honor of joining the other modern capitalist capitals with its gay neighborhood. [FOOTNOTE 1]

The transformed Marais of the 80’s provided a space for the development of a gay identity that had not existed before in France. As the community grew, gays themselves gained a reputation as respectable, resourceful, and affluent. The gay flag began to appear in store windows—a symptom of commercialization, but also of real visibility. Through the 80’s, the emerging gay identity and the geographic space of the Marais became increasingly inseparable, and by the early 90’s it seemed impossible to imagine the existence of one without the other. The resulting community, which may initially have been defined by a sexual orientation, became increasingly united by shared tastes, cultural preferences in music, food, and even by a distinct "Marais look" among the gay inhabitants, described in the article in La revue h as: "handsome, young, muscular, white, appropriately tanned and/or shaved body with skin-tight clothing ... without which, the penalty was a gaze that could kill."[FOOTNOTE 2]

Concurrent with the evolution of a gay community in the Marais, a separate and perhaps incompatible development had been occurring in the larger realm of French gay politics. Into the virtual political void of the early 80’s there arrived new types of political movements. The groups of the 1970’s (having names like: Groupes de libération homosexuelle; Front homosexuel d’action révolutionnaire; Comité d’urgence antirépression homosexuelle; and Club Arcadie) no longer seemed to serve any function in the early 80’s, their demands having been met by the new Socialist government through the repeal of the only two laws to make any distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality: The first, dating from 1942, had established a higher age of sexual majority for homosexuals than for heterosexuals. The second, dating from 1960, had doubled the penalty for public indecency when the actors were engaging in homosexual acts. The existence of these two laws had been the 1970’s movements’ raison d’être, and with the their repeal (in 1982 and 1980, respectively), the existing political groups that had championed them died out.

The period of the early 80’s represents a turning point in French gay politics. Between 1979 and 1985, new gay political organizations, such as Homosexualités et Socialisme and Gais Pour les Libertés, emerged, while well- produced magazines, notably Gai Pied, began to fill the political and cultural void. The appearance of Gai Pied’s first issue in 1979 foretold the arrival of a new cultural climate. The articles portrayed homosexuality differently from previous magazines, offering images of stable gay couples whose sex took place in a bedroom, hard-working folks who presented no threat to the status quo. In short, gay partners were suddenly represented in the same way as any other bourgeois French couple. In the early 1980’s, the opportunity for a process of social normalization and assimilation had arrived, and Gai Pied was the first and most successful magazine to respond. It was also at this time, in 1981, that Paris held its first Lesbian and Gay Pride parade. Like the appearance of Gay Pied, this event had a double significance: a victory in the fight for gay visibility, but also a symptom of the growing normalization of the movement. As one critic of these developments observed in the 1994 Programme Gay Pride Paris:

It was this "happy" event which accompanied the collapse of the gay and lesbian movement, due to a sudden lack of political demands: the Minitel [a terminal with screen connected to your telephone], the neighborhood of the Marais, the Americanization of looks and lifestyles began to take over, neglecting those who did not fit in or who were outside of this nocturnal effervescence. Gay Pride was nothing more than a commercial carnival.

As the political climate changed, as dissatisfaction with the "American" model mounted, the slogans began to shift from the "right to difference" to the "right to indifference." The latter phrase was coined by certain French civil rights groups, such as S.O.S. Racisme, but the demand for a "right to indifference" must be understood as a manifestation of a larger cultural model, frequently referred to as the "French exception." Behind that concept is a widely shared belief in universal values and social assimilation. The "French exception" can be defined in negative terms as a rejection of the American multicultural model and its celebration of "diversity." What it affirms is fealty to a concept of civilisation that’s grounded in French history and tradition going back to the ancien régime or before, an aristocratic way of living that is filtered down to the masses, a belief that to be "civilized" entails the adoption of certain values, manners, and tastes believed to be universally superior. The democratization of society over the centuries has meant that the process of civilisation is now available to everyone, and the French are reluctant to leave anyone out. Under the French model, where the opportunity to be civilized exists in principle for anyone willing to accept the constraints of assimilation, tolerance of difference is not what is called for. For a group to be separated from society according to race or sexual orientation would not be construed as a desirable outcome, standing in direct opposition to the goals of universalism and social integration. And so, the fear of "ghetto-ization" seems to underlie all contemporary French political discourse on race or sexuality.

But political discourse is one thing, and reality is another, and the fact is that French gays have built in the Marais a community complete with its own verbal and body language, dress codes, and musical tastes,. Coming to terms with this contradiction is discomfiting to French social critics, creating a discomfort that is almost palpable in the following passage from Yves Roussel in Les Temps Modernes:

French society simply writes off forms of political mobilization designated as "identity politics." Few analyses have dealt fully with this model, which is an essential trait of the Left in the United States. This relative disinterest is accompanied by a widely held conviction: the mechanisms which produced this type of mobilization in the United States do not function in France. However, France is also familiar with phenomena of exclusion based on criteria of sex, race, class or sexual orientation. Why don’t these categories of exclusion adopt identity-based forms of mobilization which have already demonstrated their effectiveness in the United States? Well, there actually is one which seriously calls into question this conviction of a French exception: it is the homosexual movement.[FOOTNOTE 3]

In the end, the rise of a gay ghetto in Paris can perhaps best be seen as the result of ineluctable market forces overwhelming traditional ideas of social integration and assimilation. The Marais of the 90’s results more from successful exploitation of a market niche than from any expression of identity politics—one more triumph for the logic of international commerce, but perhaps only a superficial accession, after all.



1. Jean Le Bitoux, "Marcher dans le gai Marais." La revue h, number 1, July 16, 1997.

2. Jean Le Bitoux, "Marcher dans le gai Marais." La revue h, number 1, July 16, 1997.

3. Yves Roussel, "Le mouvement homosexuel français face aux stratégies identitaires," Les Temps Modernes, May-June 1995.