How Gender Studies Made Headlines in France and Why It’s Scary

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Opponents in France to “gender studies” claim that it’s about erasing the differences between sexes.

The French have always used the term “political correctness” with playful derision. They see it as a consummately American aberration that they only ever refer to with gentle sarcasm. But this past week, a notion that had long been relegated to that same category of American earnestness, “gender studies,” has suddenly and bizarrely been propelled into the headlines. And how the concept of “gender studies” has ignited a full-blown political affair in France reveals something more—and more disturbing—than just a little friendly condescension.

The whole affair began to bubble up last week when it was reported that the parents of children in several hundred elementary and pre-schools scattered across France had kept their children home from school after receiving text messages with diverse warnings. The messages said that because their schools had embraced “gender studies” they would be teaching “boys to become girls,” or they would be teaching sex education to pre-schoolers. The text messages called for parents to keep their children out of class for a day. The rumors then went rapidly viral across social media and via emails.

Most of the parents targeted were Muslim. In a Strasbourg suburb with a a high Muslim population, the director of one elementary school told the media that he had to field anxious questions from many mothers including whether it was true that Jews would be coming to the school to teach their children how to masturbate. This was one of many rumors that rapidly inflamed the now full-on controversy about so-called “gender studies” being taught to kids.

It turns out the person spearheading this formal movement to boycott schools is Farida Belghoul, a former civil rights activist who had been a high-profile leader in the 1980s for the rights of France’s North African immigrants. Since then, she has veered away from the extreme left and is now close to the organization of an essayist from France’s anti-Semitic extreme right, Alain Soral, who is a vocal supporter of the now infamous French comedian, Dieudonné, whose shows were banned recently because of their anti-Semitism. Which gives a sense of where, in part, the strange resurrection of “gender studies” is coming from.

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Farida Belghoul, leader of the boycotting school movement.

Belghoul’s “School Boycott Day” movement targets an experimental school curriculum called The ABCD’s of Equality, launched by the Hollande government in September and currently being tested in 275 schools in France. The curriculum’s stated purpose is to combat inequality between men and women by targeting, early on, the underlying gender stereotypes. Belghoul and other right-wing groups are claiming that this initiative is a form of “gender studies.”

And they claim that the objective at the heart of gender studies—and of this ABCD curriculum—is to deny the difference between men and women, to encourage children to become transsexuals and homosexuals, and to destroy the heterosexual model of the family. (Obviously none of which—as you know if you went to college in the Unites States in the 1990s or after, when gender studies were becoming integrated into mainstream academic departments everywhere—is true.) They claim that the government, through public education and the ABCD’s, is trying to inculcate this anti-family ideology and LGBT propaganda as of the youngest age possible.

Universities and colleges over the United States have academic departments dedicated to gender studies.

Universities and colleges over the United States have academic departments dedicated to gender studies.

Muslim parents were the majority of those who kept their kids out of school last week, but they weren’t alone in expressing their objections to the ABCD program. If last week’s rumors about the government’s so-called “gender studies” curriculum got so extreme—and got so much traction—it’s because they were being heard in a lot of different places across the conservative and right-wing spectrum, including, with a resounding echo, conservative Catholics. Many Catholic organizations and family values groups organized seminars last week to “help” parents figure out how to deal with the situation and not allow their children’s identities to be hijacked.

The controversy couldn’t have come at a more strategic time for France’s conservative Catholic activists—and they have embraced it greedily. They had somewhat receded from public view after the defeat of last year’s widely-followed movement objecting to gay marriage. The law legalizing gay marriage and adoption was passed last May, but the opposition movement, called La Manif Pour Tous (Protest For Everyone) in opposition to the pro-gay marriage Mariage Pour Tous (Marriage for All) and largely coordinated by conservative Catholics, promised not to go away. Just last Sunday they helped organize a “March of Anger” protesting François Hollande’s socialist government, to be followed today by an ever bigger protest targeting the government’s family policies.

The same government that, in the past week, has had to deflect this rumor-fed controversy surrounding its alleged intentions to brainwash kids, eliminate sex differences, and encourage early-onset sexuality (one rumor even claimed that children would be given masturbation demonstrations with wooden penises and stuffed toy vaginas). This was, for the Manif Pour Tous activists, a controversy sent from heaven.

One of the most immediate results is that the numbers of expected participants in today’s march has jumped considerably including, it is predicted, a record number of Muslims. One organizer in the provinces, when asked about the effect of the gender studies rumor claimed that signups for the march increased 30% overnight and that as of early last week, Imams had started contacting him asking for flyers to hand out and pledging mobilization.

A picture from the protest on Sunday, February 2, which garnered  high muslim participation.

A picture from the protest on Sunday, February 2, which garnered high muslim participation.

Aside from giving the movement renewed momentum and new participants, it also gave them a strategic new name. As of yesterday, organizers had re-baptized the target of their opposition, calling the event the “March Against Family-phobia.” That’s what all these government policies add up to: first it was gay marriage and adoption, then it was the spectre of allowing gays access to fertility treatments and IVF, and now it’s this nefarious gender studies-driven attempt to convert kids—it’s clearly a government that hates families. Who wouldn’t object to a government that hates families?

So the story of how “gender studies” not only became worth talking about again last week, but ignited a full-blown political affair in France, is also the story of how all different flavors of the extreme opposition—right-wing extremists, Muslim conservatives, anti-Semitic activists, and ultra-conservative Catholics—all decided that they had some common ground.

But it is a rumor-fed and disturbing common ground that aims at a target that doesn’t really exist (gender studies?!). Leaving its real targets—and motives—unspoken. This amalgam of disparate disgruntlement and extremist activism is reminiscent of the Tea Party in the U.S in 2009. And in fact, just this morning, the Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls made the comparison himself in an interview with the Sunday paper, Le Journal du Dimanche, calling this new extremist opposition a “Tea Party à la française,” and a “revolt of the anti’s:  anti-elite, anti-government, anti-tax, anti-Parliament, anti-journalist…But also and especially anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic.”

The JDD asked the Minister if he thinks the current climate is reminiscent of the 1930’s, and Manuel Valls said he did. I sincerely hope that analogy is going too far.

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