France retreats on teaching boy-girl equality

France legalised gay marriage last year amid nationwide protests, but now the government has gone back on its plan to teach children about gender equality. (AFP)

France legalised gay marriage last year amid nationwide protests, but now the government has gone back on its plan to teach children about gender equality. (AFP)

France is scrapping a plan to teach children about equality between boys and girls after protests by parents who feared it was a stealth effort to erase gender differences – a new example of the Socialist government’s failure to stick to its promises and a growing ability of conservative Catholics to weigh in on policy.

A vocal minority has been increasingly influential in pushing back against France’s leftist government on a range of social issues. It has succeeded in recent months in getting officials to delay approval of medically assisted procreation for gay couples and to abandon an environmental tax on long-distance trucks, and is lobbying against a drive to legalise euthanasia.

The education ministry said on Monday that it would replace its ABCD of Equality programme, which was introduced at some schools earlier this year and aims to encourage boys and girls to see themselves and the opportunities available to them as equal. The policy had been trialled in 275 schools and came under attack from Roman Catholic leaders, the French far right and some parents’ groups.

Critics say the plan is insulting to professions that have been traditionally female and expressed fear that it promoted a supposed gender theory that would deny any differences between boys and girls. 

Fairness for the sexes
Officials said teachers would receive new training when the school year began in September and that the teachers would decide how to broach the topic of fairness for the sexes, especially with the youngest students. 

Education Minister Benoit Hamon said the government’s goal was “not to deny a difference” but to show that boys and girls “are equal”. “We want to prevent anyone from forming the conviction at school that there would be ...
jobs and training and diplomas for girls, and jobs and training and diplomas for boys,” he said on Monday on France Inter radio. 

Minister of Women’s Rights Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told France 3 television that the new plan would include all schools and would be an “improved” version of the original. 

Feminist groups denounced the backtracking, while others welcomed Monday’s decision. 

Small children need references
The group Vigi-gender, which had pushed for the withdrawal of the ABCD of Equality programme, said the government didn’t go far enough. Group co-ordinator Esther Pivet said “gender stereotypes ... are references for children. Small children need such references.”

Christian Chevalier, head of the SE-UNSA teacher union, said: “This atmosphere that puts teachers in the frontline of the battle in certain schools doesn’t help equality between boys and girls, which needs to be addressed in serenity.” 

The leftist government has faced pressure from conservative Catholics, Muslims and the resurgent far right over various issues. After a harsh battle over gay marriage – legalised last year amid nationwide protests – the government has delayed action on increased access to in vitro fertilisation for gay couples. 

In February, tens of thousands of demonstrators protested over a reform to family rights in France, accusing the government of being “family-phobic”. A few weeks later, controversy erupted on “skirt day”, an anti-sexism initiative in which male students are invited to attend classes wearing skirts. – Sapa-AP

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