Act Up Paris Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

French journalists familiar with the American radical activist group ACT UP founded a uniquely French organization that brought together a coalition of individuals, straight and gay, who were dissatisfied with French politics to protest the government’s record on AIDS and its indifference to the plight of all French citizens.

Summary of Event

From a Paris apartment in 1989, novice activists inspired by the radical American group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), ACT UP;and Act Up Paris[Act Up Paris] began to transform AIDS and gay and lesbian politics in France. The new French group even imported ACT UP’s famous black T-shirt with a pink triangle when its members marched in their first lesbian and gay pride parade. This approach was risky, as many still believed that AIDS had been brought to France by gay men who had visited New York. [kw]Act Up Paris Is Founded (1989) [kw]Paris Is Founded, Act Up (1989) Act Up Paris HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS];Act Up Paris Political activism;Act Up Paris [c]Health and medicine;1989: Act Up Paris Is Founded[1890] [c]HIV-AIDS;1989: Act Up Paris Is Founded[1890] [c]Marches, protests, and riots;1989: Act Up Paris Is Founded[1890] [c]Organizations and institutions;1989: Act Up Paris Is Founded[1890] Lestrade, Didier Martet, Christophe Bouchet, Joëlle

Despite flirting with American-style activism and American-inspired symbols, Act Up Paris (lowercase letters intentional) grew to reflect a different model of activism. Distinctly French, it tackled issues that ACT UP in the United States did not emphasize, remained distant from the government and pharmaceutical industry, and joined a coalition of those dissatisfied with mainstream French politics. In the process, Act Up Paris laid the foundation for the election of the first gay mayor of a major city anywhere in the world. Bertrand Delanoë, Delanoë, Bertrand an out gay man, became mayor of Paris in 2001.

In 1987, journalist Didier Lestrade had arrived in New York to research a travel article for a gay publication. It was the year in which American activists, angered by government inaction on AIDS, were founding ACT UP. Lestrade found hope in their anger and militancy, their refusal to accept that nothing could be done to slow the spread of AIDS, their efforts to speed research on a cure, and their attempts to encourage treatment of those with the disease. Lestrade blamed the spread of AIDS in France on government and medical establishment homophobia. Returning to Paris, Lestrade brought together a like-minded group of gay men, numbering a few dozen.

In 1989, another French journalist, Christophe Martet, moved to New York and joined ACT UP there. Diagnosed HIV-positive, Martet had left his job as an economics reporter with French television. In New York, he found new hope as he came to sympathize with the activist claim that industry profiteering was also at the heart of the AIDS crisis. If Lestrade represented one brand of gay and AIDS activism in France, Martet represented another. Lestrade and his supporters made building a strong gay community a centerpiece of their struggle against the disease and targeted many of their actions and efforts within the community itself. Martet, however, immediately identified with other activists who thought AIDS was a symptom of a variety of failures in French government. In fact, the first person Martet met at the organization was Joëlle Bouchet, whose son, Ludovic, was infected with HIV through blood products used to treat hemophilia. Hemophilia, and AIDS

Working together, Bouchet, Martet, Cleews Vellay, and others made the French government’s early inaction on blood Blood supply and safety, France safety a symbol for all the failures in responding to AIDS. While other hemophiliacs had filed criminal accusations against the administrators of the blood supply system, Act Up Paris was the first to launch an accusation against the former prime minister, Laurent Fabius, Fabius, Laurent who presided over early AIDS policy from 1984 to 1986. Act Up accused Fabius of murder and demanded that he be investigated and prosecuted for his crimes. Act Up was so successful that, in the period after the group launched its accusations in January, 1992, attendance grew at weekly meetings from approximately forty to more than several hundred. The group was sought out by French journalists, who were surprised to find gay AIDS activists marching alongside hemophiliacs.

Both Lestrade and Martet represent approaches to AIDS and gay politics very different from those that had been attempted before. French political values, called Republicanism, demonize organizations that make demands based on race, religion, or sex/gender. All French people, according to Republicanism, are equally entitled to the rights and protections of citizenship, so there is no need to claim any “special protections” from the government. (The rhetoric of “special rights” is used in the United States.) Early gay activism in the 1970’s called for a right to be different, and AIDES, still the largest AIDS service provider in France, was founded by gay men who refused to make homosexuality an issue in fighting the disease. Martet called on gay men to join with others who suffered from government indifference, while Lestrade, by contrast, argued for a stronger gay community.


With Act Up Paris’s growth in membership, it was clear that Martet’s argument had won. When he was elected president of the organization, he counted on new activists who would challenge government policies on prevention and treatment, official indifference to the needs of immigrants, the expulsion of undocumented immigrants suffering from the disease, and the failure to decriminalize drug use as part of AIDS prevention. Joined by many straight women and a few straight men, Act Up Paris began to work with a variety of organizations on the left, including those fighting globalization and demanding increasing rights for workers, women, the poor, and others marginalized because of their race, ethnicity, class, or gender.

By the end of the 1990’s, this strategy worked. While many tied to the establishment still attacked gay and AIDS activists as the “tools” of some foreign conspiracy and a danger to French Republicanism, a broad segment of the public began to respect Act Up’s commitment to a broader agenda, including the election of an HIV-negative heterosexual woman as the president of the organization in 2000. By demanding the prosecution of a powerful Socialist Party politician such as Fabius on behalf of hemophiliacs, Act Up demonstrated that gays were concerned about the well-being of all French citizens. By joining with organizations on the left critical of left- and right-wing governments alike, they proved that gays could place their values above partisan politics. By pointing out that the government’s failure to protect gay men from AIDS was also a failure to protect France in general, they demonstrated a measure of patriotism that many in the government did not seem to possess.

This approach enabled Bertrand Delanoë, considered the rather bland leader of the Socialist Party in Paris, to position himself, because of his homosexuality, as a political outsider despite his ties to the government. While other Socialists failed to win election when they called for political reform, Delanoë’s call for greater participation in decision making rang true. Act Up Paris HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS];Act Up Paris Political activism;Act Up Paris

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Agar, James N. “Writing = Life: Breaking the Silence on the ’Histoire’ of AIDS in France.” French Cultural Studies 9, no. 27 (October, 1998): 411.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lestrade, Didier. Act Up: Une Histoire. Paris: Denoël, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shepard, Benjamin, and Ronald Hayduk. From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization. New York: Verso, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Raymond A., ed. Encyclopedia of AIDS: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Scientific Record of the HIV Epidemic. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stockdill, Brett. Activism Against AIDS: At the Intersections of Sexuality, Race, Gender, and Class. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2003.

July 31, 1969: Gay Liberation Front Is Formed

August 8, 1978: International Lesbian and Gay Association Is Founded

July, 1982: Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Is Renamed AIDS

Spring, 1984: AIDS Virus Is Discovered

March, 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded

December 1, 1988: First World AIDS Day

December 10, 1989: ACT UP Protests at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Categories: History