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Socializing Around 'The Social Contract'

July 5, 2012; New York Times; Socializing Around 'The Social Contract'; by Elaine Sciolino.

ERMENONVILLE, France-- Jean-Jacques Rousseau may have been born in Switzerland (Geneva in fact, in 1712) and not in France. But that tiny geographic detail has not kept the citizens of the Oise, the region north of Paris where Rousseau lived briefly and died, from celebrating the philosopher all year as a national hero.

''Rousseaumania,'' as the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche called the celebration, includes picnics, conferences, publications, debates, plays, street theater, films, documentaries, concerts and dinners to pay tribute to the author of ''The Social Contract,'' which argues for a system of government and law based on the will of all citizens and remains one of the most influential works of Western political philosophy. Rousseau's house in the town of Montmorency, where he lived from 1757 to 1762, has reopened as a museum this month after a major renovation. Fourteen restaurants in the Oise have created special Rousseau-inspired menus. An authoritative version of Rousseau's complete works has been published in more than 15,000 pages. (The cheap version costs 720 Euros, the expensive one 1920).

The most elaborate celebration took place Thursday here in Ermenonville, a town of 900 residents, where Rousseau died. There was a citizens' banquet, followed by live entertainment and fireworks. Hundreds of locals and guests walked along the muddy trails of the vast Jacques Rousseau Park, where Rousseau (who was also a composer of opera, a translator, a botanist and teacher) would take his solitary walks.

Vincent Peillon, the new education minister and an author of books on philosophy, gave a long speech about Rousseau's call for every ''man'' to be an active citizen. Elizabeth Stribling, the New York real estate queen and head of the New-York based French Heritage Society, unveiled a plaque heralding the group's fund-raising to help renovate the park's Temple of Modern Philosophy. (Alas, the local dignitaries were too busy courting Mr. Peillon to participate.)

With champagne, two wines, five courses and a string quartet, the Rousseau-style ''citizens' banquet'' in the Chateau of Ermenonville was more royal than republican. ''Even though Rousseau wanted everything to be natural, he loved to eat,'' said Jean-Marc Vasseur, author of ''The Plate of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,'' and banquet consultant. ''He liked to cook omelets with fresh herbs and adored baba in Hungarian Tokay.''

Much to the dismay of France's leading feminists, however, the celebrations have tended to avoid a discussion of Rousseau's views about women.

''Rousseau is the quintessential anti-feminist,'' Elisabeth Badinter, best-selling author of ''The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women,'' wrote in an essay. ''He is the one who would have locked women in their houses for them to be good mothers and housekeepers. We are witnessing a revival of those ideas today.''

The 18th-century philosopher considered women incapable of playing a role in public life. Their education had one purpose: to please men, be useful to men, educate and take care of men and make men's lives ''easy and agreeable.'' Women were, in short, ''the sex that ought to obey.''

''It is hard to discuss these subjects in France,'' Geneviève Fraisse, a philosopher and author, said. ''As soon as you mention the word feminism people see you as a harpie.''

This is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.

Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company

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