The French education ministry recently introduced the study of sexual identity into its high school science curriculum. The right sees it as an importation of militant American “gender theory”—and throws a fit.
In my sophomore year in college, I took a class on twentieth-century European thought. The final thinker we read was the French (well, Belgian) feminist thinker Luce Irigaray, whose views about the socially constructed nature of gender had become something of an academic obsession. Her place on the syllabus made on impression on me: feminism, it suggested, was the culmination of the European—and specifically, French—philosophical tradition. But when I returned to Paris to live for a few years in the early nineties, I found that these thinkers were far less known in France than they were to many American college students.
Even if many US gender theorists turned to “French theory” for inspiration, the thesis that sexual identity is socially constructed remains, in the eyes of many in France, an American idea, an exemplar of our obsession with “le politiquement correct.” Hence the interest of a controversy that struck the hexagon this past summer. Right-wing politicians have accused the conservative government of introducing American gender theory into the sex education curriculum of high-school juniors. From an American perspective, this hullaballoo is wonderfully bizarre. A conservative education minister stands accused of endorsing radical feminism and of yielding to the “homosexual lobby.” France finds itself in the midst of a Texan-style textbook controversy. And social conservatives are rejecting a curriculum change on the grounds that it endorses “bad science.”
These are not the kinds of debates Americans typically associate with France. Certainly they remind us that as much as the American right would like to believe that France is the homeland of socialism, pacifism, and sexual anarchy, the French have their own version of a hard-core, reactionary right (to anyone who knows anything about France at all, of course, this is no news). But I wonder if this debate is only about competing views on the nature of sexual identity. It also reflects, I think, a more diffuse anxiety about the integrity of French identity, at a moment when it seems in danger of being washed away by globalization’s rising tide.
The recent controversy concerns a curriculum change introduced by the French National Education Ministry in the teaching of “Sciences de la vie et de la terre”—life and earth sciences—which are known by the acronym SVT. In September 2010, education minister Luc Chatel announced that the SVT curriculum for high school juniors (which the French call “première”) would henceforth include a unit called “Masculine-Feminine.” In the letter describing the change, the ministry explained that SVT sought to offer an “education in sexuality” to allow “future adults” to “take charge of their sexual lives in a responsible way.” To this end, the curriculum would show that “if sexual identity and sexual roles in society, along with their stereotypes, belong to the public sphere, sexual orientation belongs, for its part, to the private sphere.” Students will learn “to differentiate, based on a comparison of biological date and social representations,” that which belongs to “sexual identity,” which pertains to sexual roles and social stereotypes, and “sexual orientation,” which is a matter of “personal intimacy.”
Conservatives claimed to object less to the curriculum change itself than to the textbooks that were written to support it. Opponents refer in particular to a SVT textbook recently released by the venerable French publisher Hachette (to get an idea of what it looks like, click here). Some cited the following passage as especially offensive: “Our biological sex identifies us as male or female but this is not enough to describe ourselves as masculine or feminine. Our sexual identities, constructed over our entire lives, through a constant interaction between biology and socio-cultural context, are nonetheless determining in the way that we position ourselves in relation to others.” Many saw statements like these as explicitly endorsing US gender theory, to which the curriculum itself had alluded only implicitly.
The first salvo against the new curriculum came in the late spring from Christine Boutin, the Christian right’s most vocal spokesperson. Boutin is an avowed social conservative and staunch Catholic. Yet at least in the postwar era, this constituency has never really had its own political organization in France. They used to belong to the UDF, a loose coalition of non-Gaullist conservatives that somewhat awkwardly allied Christian democrats with free-market liberals. Boutin has, in recent years, played an important role in introducing the concerns of conservative Catholics into French politics. She has, for instance, long been associated with anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia movements.
But her real claim to fame came in the late nineties, when she campaigned tirelessly against the socialist government’s civil union legislation known as the PACS (pacte civil de solidarité, or “civil pact of solidarity”), which for the first time gave significant legal rights to same-sex couples. A member of parliament at the time, Boutin pulled a Strom Thurmond, filibustering the bill for five hours. At one point, she declared: “A society that places homosexuality and heterosexuality on the same level is working towards its own disappearance and may seriously compromise the education of its children. To place these two kinds of behavior on the same level is to consider the individual as an absolute, subject to no objective moral or social norms.” Pro-PACS groups like ACT-UP accused her of homophobia. This notoriety allowed her to run for president in 2002 (she received 1.19% of the vote on the first round) and led to her appointment as Sarkozy’s housing minister after he was elected in 2007. She has announced her intention to run in the 2012 election, as the candidate of the newly-formed (and tiny) Parti chrétien-démocrate (PCD, or Christian Democratic Party).
Yet Boutin’s agenda transcends“social” issues. She is also a critic of the European Union, opposing the European constitutional treaty when it was submitted to the French as a referendum in 2005. She endorses a “Catholic humanist” vision of the economy, founded on respect for the “human person.” Like Pope Benedict, she can, at times, be a trenchant critic of the soulless and exploitative character of the contemporary global marketplace.
It is as a social conservative that Boutin denounced the SVT curriculum, in a letter to education minister Luc Chatel dated May 31. The new textbooks, she claims, are specifically inspired by “gender theory” (“la théorie du genre”) which, she asserts, is ideological, not scientific. She contends that the textbooks violate the republican principle of freedom of conscience, in “teaching, while conferring on them a pseudo-scientific status, theories about human beings and their sexuality.” But above all, she asserts that the textbooks teach values that are not only immoral, but un-French: “Monsieur le ministre, we cannot accept that schools become the target of propaganda, where adolescents are held hostage by the concerns of minorities that have a difficult time imposing a conception of ‘normality’ that French people do not share.” She calls on Chatel to withdraw and replace the existing textbooks.
In late August, another conservative group came out against the new curriculum: the Droite populaire (DP, or Popular Right). The DP is a caucus of some forty members of parliament belonging to Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, who defiantly seek to push it further to the right. Consider the DP’s charter. They want a state that is tough and punitive in dealing with crime, illegal immigration, and delinquency in schools. At the same time, they love free enterprise and believe that “those who work must be able to preserve the fruit of their labors.” But above all, its members play up their patriotism, proclaiming their love for the tricolor flag and the Marseillaise (the national anthem). In this spirit, the DP has also been a sponsor of so-called “apéros saucission pinard”–“wine and sausage parties.” Under the guise of good-natured patriotism, these events are distinctly ugly affairs, deliberately intended to offend Muslims and to remind them of what separates them from “true Frenchness” (here’s a clip of what they look like).
The DP gleefully proclaims that it opposes “political correctness.” You know where this is going. In June, the DP member of parliament Christian Vanneste described gay marriage as an “anthropological aberration,” since society has an obligation to “ensure its durability.” Homosexuality, he claims, isn’t about sexual identity, but “sexual pleasure,” and as such deserves no special public recognition (oddly, he makes a ham-fisted but still surprising effort to enlist Simone de Beauvoir on his side). In May, Brigitte Barèges, another DP MP, responded to questions about gay marriage (then under consideration in parliament) by asking: “And why not unions with animals? Or polygamy?”
Recently, the Droite populaire has made the SVT curriculum and textbooks the new object of its populist ire. In a letter from August 30 addressed to the education minister, a long list of DP members complained, like Boutin, that the curriculum endorses the “theory of sexual gender,” according to which “persons are no longer defined as men or women but as practicing certain forms of sexuality: homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals.” The curriculum infringes, they contend, “republican and secular values,” which require all teaching to be rational and neutral. Instead, the textbooks introduce a militant and unproven theory imported from …. America. They quote the journalist Gérard Leclerc, who claims that gender theory is “an ideology fabricated in the United States, whose philosophical, activist, and even intrusive character is obvious.”
That gender theory appears “intrusive” may be one of the main reasons Boutin and the DP are so adamantly opposed to it. Clearly, they are homophobic and anti-feminist (at least in the most common understandings of what “feminism” means). But blended in with their desire to defend a staunchly heterosexual definition of marriage and strictly defined gender roles is a concern with French national identity—the protection of its Catholic heritage and the defense of its culture against external European, Islamic, and American threats. And at a time when both the center-right and the center-left are wedded to the European Union and policies associated with globalization, it is social conservatives like Boutin and the DP that manage to pass themselves off as voices of protest.