HISTORICALLY, the great boulevards of Paris have channeled not just pedestrians and cars, but also political passions and causes—especially when the Republic seems endangered. On Feb. 2, Paris once again became a vast political stage. One hundred thousand demonstrators had gathered, galvanized by a danger looming over the Republic. The threat was not, as in times past, fascism or Nazism, communism or totalitarianism. It was, instead, an ideology far more insidious and imported from, of all places, the United States.
A new specter was haunting France—the specter of gender theory.
In the United States, gender theory—embodied most notably, perhaps, by the work of Judith Butler at UC Berkeley—argues that gender is less a biological fact than a social fiction. Since the 1980s, gender studies has become a familiar part of the curriculum at liberal arts colleges. For the most part, though, the academy is where these theories have stayed, so much so that it’s impossible to imagine Americans protesting them. The current French scandal over this obscure branch of critical theory is a particularly bemusing example of the way in which certain kinds of intellectual goods get lost in translation: Not since their embrace of Jerry Lewis have the French responded so passionately to an American export we ourselves have never fully appreciated.
Behind the February protest were several political groups, uniting both traditionalist voters and conservative religious ones, that had organized massive demonstrations last summer during a vitriolic debate in France over the legalization of gay marriage. In May 2013, the Socialist government passed the law nevertheless. The battleground then shifted to a new proposed measure: an update to France’s “family law” that, among other things, stood to offer protections for reproductive assistance for gay couples. This year, many of the same protesters turned out again, their brightly colored pink and blue banners emblazoned with a battle cry: “Un papa, une maman: there’s nothing more natural.”
It wasn’t just the bill, however, that got the protesters out in force. The spark that rekindled the movement was, of all things, a grade school program called the “ABC of equality.” This experimental project, launched by the government in late 2013 in a handful of grade schools, encouraged children to consider that though some biological differences between the sexes exist, other differences are “constructed” by society, a product as much of stereotypes as of physical differences. According to its critics, the lesson plan was inspired in part by the work of American gender theorists like Butler.
As word got out about the program, rumors began to fly among conservative activists. One extreme right-wing website, Equality and Reconciliation, claimed that teachers were encouraging boys to be girls and girls to be boys, as well as inviting them to masturbate in class,none of which was actually part of the curriculum. Parents were urged to keep their children at home for a day in protest. As schools began to report significant levels of absenteeism, government officials scattered across the media to denounce the “folles rumeurs.”
It was to little avail: Enough people had become horrified by the new impact of “gender studies” that, in February, they turned out in droves. Nearly overnight, “la théorie du genre” was on everyone’s lips. Gender theory was the “obsession” of the Socialist government, one conservative news magazine declared. Activists contacted public libraries to demand that they pull texts tainted by American gender theory from the shelves.