French schoolbook ignites gender debate


‘ONE IS not born a woman, one becomes one,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1949. More than 60 years later, the inclusion of a similar claim in France’s primary school textbooks has deputies in Nicolas Sarkozy’s party up in arms.

With French children returning to class this week after the summer holiday, 80 members of the UMP party wrote to education minister Luc Chatel to call for the withdrawal of a schoolbook that tackles gender theory, or the idea that masculinity and femininity are socially constructed.

Their protest centres on a life sciences manual by the publisher Hachette. Under the heading “Becoming Woman or Man”, chapter nine explains that “biological sex identifies us as a male or female”, but is not in itself enough “for us to describe ourselves as masculine or feminine.

“This sexual identity, constructed throughout one’s life, is a constant interaction between biology and the socio-cultural context, yet is decisive in our positioning in relation to others,” it adds. In their complaint, the UMP deputies say this is “a philosophical and sociological theory that is not scientific” and demanded the manual be withdrawn.

They received the support of their party’s general secretary, Jean-François Copé, who said the deputies “pose a real question”.

“What is deeply shocking in this affair is that gender theory . . . is presented as a scientific truth when it’s not,” Mr Copé said. “It’s like if we presented Marxist theory as scientific truth in economic textbooks, when it’s only a theory.”

The UMP’s intervention drew the condemnation of the main teachers’ union and the opposition Socialist party. In a statement, the socialists accused the right of “showing once again its totally reactionary vision of gender identity”, saying the desire to “deny the diversity of sexual identities” revealed the governing party’s refusal to accept the right to individual liberties.

In his response to the deputies, Mr Chatel said that official documents issued by his department did not refer to gender theory but that he would not interfere with a publisher’s editorial choices.

“It’s not the education minister’s job to edit schoolbooks,” he said.

While he opted to steer clear of gender theory, Mr Chatel did announce an addition to the school day with an order to reinstate morality lessons in primary schools.

A circular issued by the ministry instructs schools to put classroom time aside each week for “a little debate” about moral and philosophical issues.

“I’m bringing morals back to the classroom,” Mr Chatel said. “I want children to learn about good and evil, truth and falsehood, dignity, courage and honesty.”