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French schools face boycott over 'gender theory' scare

French Education Minister Vincent Peillon
French Education Minister Vincent Peillon Reuters/Charles Platiau

The French government is fighting to break a school boycott by parents convinced that their children are being taught masturbation and a non-existent "gender theory" as part of an effort to promote equality between the sexes.

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Education Minister Vincent Peillon on Wednesday told head teachers to summon parents who have withdrawn their children from school to explain that rumours about the government's ABCD of Equality programme are untrue and remind them that school attendance is a legal requirement.

"A certain number of extremists have decided to lie, to frighten parents," Peillon told journalists. "What we are doing in schools is teach the values of the republic and, therefore, respect between men and women."

He also sent a message of "solidarity" to teachers, judging it "unacceptable" that their professionalism should be questioned.

Representatives of a left-aligned parents' association, the FCPE, have received threats for speaking out against the boycott, Jean-Luc Mélenchon's Left Party claimed on Wednesday.

The boycott, which started on Monday and is reported to have affected about 100 schools, was in response to a call by Farida Belghoul, a film-maker and novelist who started a political life as an anti-racist activist but is now close to far-right ideologue Alain Soral, who in turn is an ally of controversial comedian Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala.

She and her supporters claimed that the ABCD of Equality, an effort to combat gender inequality in education and employment being tried out in several areas of the country since last autumn, teaches pupils that sexual differences are socially constructed, leading to little boys be told to wear dresses and children being invited to choose their sexuality.

"Under the pretext of the struggle for equality and against homophobic discrimination" gay rights activists are discussing 'homosexuality, bisexuality and transsexuality" in class, the organisers' website declares.

Gender theory is an invention. What we have are gender studies. It’s a research field - it’s neither a doctrine nor an ideology. It’s a research field that takes for object the story of the representation of women and men across culture and across history.

Anne-Emmanuelle Berger, French literature and gender studies professor, Paris VIII University

Some claim that a World Health Organisation report on sex education, published in 2010, advocates teaching masturbation to nursery school children and that the government is preparing to ban home schooling.

The gender-theory scare took off last year during the massive demonstrations against same-sex marriage.

Unilaterally changing the name of the academic discipline gender studies that is taught in some US universities, some anti-gay marriage activists claimed it was actually a theory of socially acquired gender and that the government was plotting to teach it in the nation's schools.

A Google search for the phrase "gender theory" only gives links to French sites, apart from one to Wikipedia's page on gender studies.

Catholic fundamentalists, such as the Civitas group which has backed the boycott call, sounded the alarm, as did Béatrice Bourges, a leading anti-gay marriage campaigner who went on to lead the hard-right Printemps Français (French Spring) movement and is currently on hunger strike in an attempt to force MPs to sack President François Hollande.

A leaflet issued by the anti-gay marriage movement Manif' pour Tous claimed that it "denies our biological and cultural reality and deconstructs the elementary points of reference of our children".

The government has acccused the mainstream right of being slow to distance itself from the boycott.

The leader of the UMP party, Jean-François Copé, condemned it in a statement on Tuesday but on Wednesday called on the education ministry to "clear up any ambiguity" on the question.

On Monday Copé declared that he "understood families' worries" and was "shocked by gender theory".

That led government spokesperson Najat Vallaud-Belkacem to accuse him of "taking the side of extremists against the republic and its values".

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