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France gives way to opponents of ‘gender theory’ in schools

Everybody in France has a view on ABCD de l’égalité. A controversial school programme aimed at combating sexism and gender stereotypes that was introduced in 275 schools last September as an experiment…

“Gender, it’s just not my thing,” argued protestors against the ABCD equality programme. Peter Potrowl, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Everybody in France has a view on ABCD de l’égalité. A controversial school programme aimed at combating sexism and gender stereotypes that was introduced in 275 schools last September as an experiment. The idea was to teach children that some differences between the sexes are biological, but others are socially constructed. It was met with fierce pressure from conservative and religious parents, angry that their children were being taught théorie du genre (gender theory) at school. Those on the left supported the programme as an important step to promoting equality in France.

But now it seems the French government has bowed to the sustained campaign against the programme. Confirming revelations by L'Express newspaper, on June 29, France’s minister for women’s rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, announced that ABCD de l’égalité was to be discontinued.

A new action plan to teach children about equality between girls and boys at schools has now been announced by the education minister Benoît Hamon. But the government’s backdown appeared inescapably like a victory for the opponents of théorie du genre, who have been mobilising in France since the law allowing gay marriage was passed in May 2013.

No revolution

The ABCD de l’égalité programme was far from revolutionary when it came to educating children about the politics of equality between the sexes. It was actually a continuation of steps taken by the French state since the 1980s to change perceptions on gender stereotypes.

Yvette Roudy, minister for women’s rights under France’s first socialist President François Mitterand, had given the issues particular attention at school in the 1980s, by bolstering the representation of women in school text books and changing the practices of teachers. With the co-operation of the ministry of national education, she established training courses for primary school teachers devoted to the analysis of sexism and to a new egalitarian pedagogy.

In any case, the sensibilisation work that the ABCD de l’égalité programme was meant to introduce, has actually been carried out for years by associations volunteering with pupils of all ages to teach them about sexism and homophobia.

The only “new” thing in the programme was the notion of gender, or “gender theory”. This was popularised in the 1970s by feminists, and has been widely used since by social and human scientists to explain the inequality between the sexes. But it has been struck out of the new action plan presented by the French government.

Under the guise of being even more ambitious, the new action plan actually goes back to the old formula of gender equality education, emphasising the training of teachers instead of the awareness of children. It forgets that the ABCD programme was brought in precisely to remedy the inefficiency of the old modus operandi.

From misinformation to victory

Behind this backpedalling has been vociferous lobbying by parents against the introduction of this so-called “gender theory” into educational establishments.

At the end of January 2014, a collective called Journée de Retrait de l’Ecole launched a huge campaign of misinformation. The JRE collective is made up of parents who were pulling their children out of school one day a month to protest against the ABCD programme. It spread the rumour by text message that masturbation would soon be taught at school.

The campaign’s widespread media coverage gave it big visibility and introduced “gender theory” as an important element of public debate. But French phobia against gender theory is not new. It was sparked by the 1995 World Conference of Women, when the Roman Catholic Church took its first position against the idea of mutable sexual identities.

The phobia was then revived in 2010 by the insertion of a chapter in French biology text books entitled “becoming male or female”. And then exacerbated again by the introduction of gay marriage in 2013.

It would be wrong to think that it was just Catholic opposition that led the call to mobilise. It’s true that some of its opposition movements like the Manif Pour Tous or the Printemps Francais have a christian militant base, and have managed to reunite practising Catholic members of both the middle class and Catholic bourgeoise. But the JRE movement also reverberated strongly through Muslim communities and the lower class. The far right has also added its voice to the movement. In response to the government’s decision on the ABCD programme, conservative author Farida Belghoul spoke of the “unquestionable victory” of the JRE collective.

Boundary between public and private

Aside from the religious and social questions being asked in the current debate, the polemic around the teaching of gender theory at school seems to have reignited old passions. It has revisited a debate that started at the end of the 19th century around the role of the school and, by extension, the state. The phrase “children do not belong to their parents, they belong to the state”, attributed to the socialist senator Laurence Rossignol by the Catholic movement Civitas, has played a big part in the debate. She protests that she did not say the phrase, and has been subject to a campaign of manipulation.

Apart from the questions about gender equality at work and the disconnection between sex and sexuality which is at the heart of the gender studies, some more conservative parents were also incensed by the imposition of public power into personal lives.

But erecting a boundary between the private and public underestimates the porous borders between the two spheres. Issues such as the pay gap between men and women and sex abuse continue a system of beliefs and representations about the world which remain solidly anchored in people’s heads.

The refusal of practising Catholics and the French right to acknowledge the social origins of the differences between the sexes, and talk about these issues at school, won’t change anything. Unfortunately, we don’t have to believe in masculine dominance and inequality between the sexes for them to exist.

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