A row about children’s books exposes sharp cultural divisions in France
Feb 22nd 2014 | PARIS | From the print edition
WHEN culture wars break out in France, they are usually to do with protecting art-house films or the French language. Political battles over family values are a lot rarer, thanks to a fairly relaxed liberal consensus. Abortion in France, for instance, is legal and free. Couples can enter into official unions (PACS) without getting married. Gay marriage was legalised last year. And there is also cross-party agreement in favour of a strict form of secularism, known as laïcité and entrenched by law since 1905, which keeps religion out of public life.
Yet the country has recently found itself torn apart by virulent quarrels about the role and nature of the family. The most recent concerned several books designed for children of primary-school age, bearing such titles as “Jean has two Mummies”, “Daddy wears a dress”, and “Everybody naked!”, a volume that shows, page by page, family members, a baby-sitter, a policeman, a teacher and several others all taking their clothes off (see picture). “Enough!” cried Jean-François Copé, head of the main centre-right UMP party, as he leafed through this picture-book on a television show. Such texts, he declared, had no place as recommended reading material in state schools.
The book in question, claimed its detractors, was officially recommended as part of a new government project, ABCD of Equality, that is designed to counter gender stereotyping at a young age. This project is the brainchild of Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the government’s spokesperson and also minister for women’s rights, who has pushed through a new law on sex equality. After a huge fuss, it turned out that “Everybody naked!” was not in fact part of the official curriculum but merely one of 92 suggested picture-books on a website linked to by ABCD of Equality, from which primary teachers might choose to select their books. But such details do not deter culture warriors.
The book row is just part of a wider panic uniting Catholic and Muslim traditionalists, who are convinced that Ms Vallaud-Belkacem’s project is really about imposing “gender theory”. Schoolchildren, say her critics, are to be taught that sexual identity is learned rather than being biologically or otherwise determined.
Teenagers will be “encouraged to doubt their sexual identity”, declares Farida Belghoul, an anti-gender-theory activist, as the government tries to “re-educate our children”. The education ministry, asserts her group, is in the pockets of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lobby. Another lobby, of Catholic conservatives, is now campaigning to have all “offensive” books removed from public libraries.
Such is the hysteria that, when Ms Belghoul recently urged parents to boycott classes as part of a day of protest over gender theory, scores of schools suffered. Rumours flew on social media that small children would be taught to masturbate, and boys to dress up as girls. Vincent Peillon, the education minister, had to step in to try to calm people down. The whole episode, insisted Ms Vallaud-Belkacem, was provoked by “the manipulation and agitation of fears and fantasies”.
All of this might be dismissed as a sideshow were it not for the growing muscle of the family lobby. Last year, despite repeated protests, it failed to block the legalisation of gay marriage. Yet earlier this month as many as 100,000 people took to the streets to protest against a draft law which, they claimed, would give gay couples access to surrogate motherhood and fertility treatment. Even though the text in question did not contain either provision, President François Hollande backed down and shelved the bill, to the consternation of many in his Socialist Party.
No single force is driving the family-values lobby. It unites hardline traditional Catholic groups, including Civitas, as well as activists of north African origin, such as Ms Belghoul. The far-right National Front is not leading the crusade but its leader, Marine Le Pen, has denounced ABCD of Equality as a distraction from real teaching. Her party seems likely to benefit from the frenzy in next month’s local elections. Having described the teaching of gender theory as “shocking” and campaigned against gay marriage, Mr Copé has since become a bit more nuanced, for instance by condemning the school boycotts.
For his part, Mr Hollande seems to have calculated that he cannot afford to divide the French over cultural matters at a time when he is also trying to bring in controversial new business-friendly economic policies. Yet this decision is also risky. A new generation of Socialist deputies has been drawn into politics not from the labour movement or local government but from the non-profit sector, where they fought for women’s rights and against violence and discrimination. In a post-industrial era, when workers have largely abandoned the left for the National Front, the deputies see such issues as a key Socialist battleground. They are furious about Mr Hollande’s retreat, and in no mood to give up the struggle.