Personal or Political? Representations of Disability in Contemporary French Fiction

By Haigh, Samantha | Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, September 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Personal or Political? Representations of Disability in Contemporary French Fiction


Haigh, Samantha, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies


The article begins by examining recent changes in disability legislation in France, changes spearheaded, over the last decade, by the work of Julia Kristeva, who suggests that France is finally moving toward a social model of disability. Focusing on two novels-Luc Leprêtre's Club VIP: Very Invalid Person (2009) and Arnauld Pontier's Equinoxe (2006)-the article explores whether an awareness of these changes can also be discerned in contemporary French fiction. Using the recent work of Kristeva, but also that of Tom Shakespeare, Lennard Davis, and Tobin Siebers, the article explores whether it is useful to conceive of either political change or attitudinal shiftin terms of "progress" from a medical to a social model, and suggests that while both writers interrogate normative perceptions of disability, they do so in more complex and nuanced ways than might initially be expected.

Introduction: Disability Politics in France

Over the last decade, disability has finally appeared on the political agenda in France. In 2002, just ahead of the EU's planned Year of Disabled People in 2003, Chirac announced that disability was to be one of the three, key priorities of his second presidency, and appointed Julia Kristeva as head of a new Conseil National Handicap (National council on disability). Under its auspices, Kristeva commissioned a series of six public information broadcasts for television, presented various conference papers, wrote both academic and more widely accessible newspaper articles, and gave many media interviews. At Chirac's request she produced a report on the current situation of people with disabilities in France, which was published in 2003 as Lettre au Président de la République sur les citoyens en situation de handicap, à l'usage de ceux qui le sont et de ceux qui ne le sont pas (Letter to the President of the Republic on Citizens with Disabilities: For the Use of Those with Disabilities, and Those without). Following a series of talks and lectures across France, there was a conference in Lyon in May 2005, which was addressed by the President and whose proceedings were published in Kristeva's Handicap: le temps des engagements (Disability: Time for Commitment, 2006). The culmination of all of this activity was in the introduction, in 2005, of the first major piece of disability legislation in France since 1975: a new law aimed at promoting the equal rights, opportunities, participation, and citizenship of people with disabilities. Like its earlier US and UK counterparts, the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), this law covers major, basic issues such as the right to non-discrimination, the right to work and/or to reasonable levels of benefits, the right to have access to public places and public transport, and the right to be educated alongside people without disabilities. What is more, this law was also intended to address the way in which, in comparison with the USA, Canada, and the UK, most Scandinavian countries, and other European countries such as Belgium and Holland, France has historically lagged behind in terms of disability law and provision. According to Kristeva, it was designed specifically to enable France to "catch up" with the rest of the industrialized world ("Handicap, différence et société," 7) and, as such, represented a long-overdue movement away from the medical model of disability that has continued to prevail in France since the nineteenth century, toward the social model that has predominated in an Anglo-American context since the 1980s (Lettre au Président, 17, 27-8, 37).

It may at first appear striking, as Kristeva herself points out, that equality for people with disabilities had been the least forthcoming in a Republic based on the ideals of "liberty, equality, fraternity" and the "rights of man" ("Handicap, différence et société," 1). However, as Kristeva acknowledges, this is of course also a Republic built on notions of abstract individualism, reason, and universalism inherited from the Enlightenment: a tradition of unity and indivisibility that has tended to see difference as a threat to national coherence and as something to be eradicated, either through exclusion or integration.

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