Although this essay is about feminist challenges to certain ideas of universal citizenship, it was provoked by anger: the intense anger being expressed by some Parisian intellectuals and journalists from across the political spectrum about American politics in general and American feminism in particular.footnote1 And also my own anger at the outrageous, patently ahistorical caricatures of national character—French and American—that are being produced in the course of the latest version of ‘la querelle des femmes’. (The ‘querelle’ was, in the sixteenth century, a literary and philosophical debate—largely among men—about the intellectual and amorous capabilities of women. Now the ‘querelle’ is about feminism and, although men have joined the conversation, most of the participants are women.)

An example of the French intellectuals’ anger is a recent editorial by Jacques Julliard in the left weekly, Le Nouvel Observateur. Julliard starts by discussing a new American advice manual for women who want to snag a husband.

He objects to the reduction of the mating game to a set of rules—the name of the book is The Rules—but finds this approach typical of Americans because:

The nightmare, par excellence, on the other side of the Atlantic. . .today, as yesterday, is love. To eliminate it, they have tried everything. First, repression, that is to say, puritanism. Then, trivialization, that is to say, liberalized practices with their parade of scientific surveys and sexual gossip. Lastly, the final solution, that is to say, American feminism. . .

I am not so pessimistic as to imagine that American women will conform to a woman to the model proposed for them, nor so optimistic as to believe that French women will remain untouched by the vices of our time. I have a thought, however, on behalf of those who suffer most, I mean the men across the Atlantic. Caught between the feminist party that wants to castrate him and the matrimonial party that dreams of caging him, the American male has limited chances of survival. Thus he [compensates]: he makes war, and dreams of dominating the planet. For those of you preoccupied with American imperialism, it’s useless to say so to their diplomats; better to whisper sweet nothings to their women.footnote2

Here we have not just an attack on American feminism, but a pop psychology of American economic and political hegemony, and an implicit contrast favouring France—mythically presented as the nation that isn’t afraid of sex, knows how to play the game of seduction, and loves to love. There is also an implicit warning to French women who are indeed expected, as a patriotic duty, to stay away from feminism and to spare their men ‘the sufferings’ experienced by ‘the men across the Atlantic’.

The repeated geographic designation of America as ‘l’outre Atlantique’ makes this a statement not just about contrasting cultural practices, but about nationhood and national identity. The global political economy—which seems to be everywhere realizing a once utopian vision of universality by, among other things, reducing the salience of national boundaries, if not erasing them entirely—is driven, says Julliard, by emasculated Americans. The disappearance of clear lines of sexual difference serves both as a figure of this global homogenization and as a comment on its ‘unnatural’ effects. The causality is reciprocal: sexual frustration drives American men to conquer the world; their politics reproduce in the political and economic field the pathology of the psychosexual realm. (The solution, hardly playful, is for French men to take American women in hand, restoring them to normal sexual desire: ‘better to whisper sweet nothings to their women’.)

Neither sexual difference nor national identity can be denied, according to Julliard. And one effect of his piece is to assert the particularity of French national identity. That he does this by associating it with the universal truth of sexual difference is not accidental. There is a long history for the paradoxical claim that the uniqueness of French national identity, at least since the Revolution of 1789, rests on its commitment to universal principles. Because it is said to embody such principles, republicanism is taken to be a bulwark—in theory, if not in practice historically—against the ‘final solution’, here used to tar feminism and America with the brush of totalitarianism.