Gender Theory: Alive and Well in France?
If the Socialist government hopes it has buried boycotts and widespread protests over sex equality curricula in French secondary schools it may be reckoning without the feisty Muslim writer Farida Belghoul.
For despite a concerted effort by government ministers to assuage troubled parents and insist that its latest addition to the curriculum — the “ABC of equality” — is not a Trojan horse for teaching Gender Theory its opponents appear to remain unconvinced.
The video below shows the formidable 56-year-old writer, film-maker and teacher lucidly arguing her case against what has become, for a large swathe of French parents, a widely mistrusted teaching programme which Farida Belghoul and others on the conservative right say has been imported from the United States as part of an ideology of indoctrination aimed at undermining traditional family values.
Strangely however what has fuelled protest and panic on Paris streets; a widely disseminated school absenteeism campaign and a government row-back on parts of planned changes in family policy, is not some radical new piece of left-wing social engineering.
Rather it is the now somewhat dated work of Berkeley academic Judith Butler, a professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature and the co-director of the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California.
As Michel Onfray French anarchist philosopher, writer and founder of the Université Populaire de Caen, a free university notes: “In 1997, Milton Diamond, professor of anatomy and reproductive biology at the University of Hawaii denounced a theory he claimed was based on ‘false memory syndrome’.” However Onfray continues: “Judith Butler toured the world defending these delusions. The French bienpensants of the Left and their press opened their columns wide to her theories. In the same way as reality has now shown the errors of (theories put forward by) Marx & Lenin, Freud & Lacan … the same reality in 2002 revealed that Gender Theory was a dangerous fiction. However many people subscribe to this new folly – among them (French Minister for Gender Equality) Najat Belkacem-Valaud. A day will come when the ravages of this astonishing post-modern ideology will be brought to account (but only after) considerable damage has been done.”
The clip below shows the minister setting out her priorities including the controversial changes now introduced into the education curriculum:
Unsurprisingly in the academic world Judith Butler has generated much debate among strong supporters and sharp critics alike. According to Wikipedia: “Butler’s work has been extraordinarily influential in feminist and queer theory, cultural studies, and philosophy… (transforming) understandings of gender and queer identity in the academic world, (while they have) shaped and mobilized various kinds of political activism, particularly queer activism, across the globe”.
Robert Zaretsky, an American academic and long time observer of French affairs describes Butler’s main focus as an obscure branch of critical theory not given much credence in the US outside some liberal campuses and dating from the 1980s. It has however by way of mangled messages, become a hot issue in France.
Zaretsky adds: “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.”
Describing the links he sees between the current fractious and distressed state of French society he says: “In a way, gender theory for many in France is just another name for chaos. And some anxiety about chaos is, right now, understandable. With a floundering economy and faltering industrial base, rising unemployment and declining productivity, their borders besieged by globalization and their national institutions superseded by the European Union, the French have rarely been so divided over the identity of their nation and so demoralized over its prospects.”
The fractures in French politics since François Hollande was elected President of France on 6 May 2012 have been highlighted incessantly by French political commentators and widely echoed in the foreign media ever since he came to office. The series of well-supported mass protests since the start of the New Year have helped reinforce the feeling that the street is a driving force in the forging of new political alliances. Among these has been the unexpectedly popular Manif pour Tous movement opposed to legalisation of gay marriage and the undermining of the traditional family.
As Gaël Brustier, a leading political scientist and a member of the Socialist Party told Le Figaro: “Manif pour Tous is a true social movement, now fully furnished with intellectual backing, money raising mechanisms, political officers, a flush of new supporters and activists. It has rejuvenated the Right through its mass street protests, a phenomenon of course that has happened before in our history, and it seems all its support bases are clearly on the right of the political spectrum. They propagate a conservative message in a philosophical sense while mobilising populist support through street protest. The mariage pour tous issue crystallizes the moral panic, and anxiety about our civilization that Manif pour Tous has capitalised on. The movement is full of diffuse cross-currents and acts rather like a large centrifuge, a focal point for dissenters concerned that the foundations of society are being undermined. Their mental anguish is accentuated by concerns about the ‘commoditisation’ of life, and issues such as medically assisted procreation and surrogate motherhood and their impact on traditional family structures.”
Once a far-left activist and anti-racist militant Farida Belghoul has gradually moved into the far right camp. Indeed some observers worry about the muddied waters in which she fishes. These include the Égalité et Réconciliation movement set up by self-professed ‘anti-zionist’ and philosopher Alain Soral. He in turn is a friend and mentor of Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, the French comic currently facing multiple investigations by prosecutors over his affairs and who shot to world attention with his controversial quenelles salute.
Much is published on the Internet attacking the motives of the former Marxist Soral, his oscillation between Left and Right politics, the backing he is said to have received from radical clerics in Iran and now the support from the powerfully-spoken Muslim activist Farida Belghoula, on the issue of gender theory.
Interviewed above Interior Minister Manuel Valls said the campaign by Farida Belghoul and her supporters calling on parents to remove their children once a week from school — the JRE, Journée de retrait de l’école or “Day off school” — was a manipulation. “Everyone knows gender theory is not being taught in our schools,” he said promising firm action against parents who kept their children away from schooling (which is compulsory in France).
Referring to the company Farida Belghoul now keeps, Manual Valls said those who propagate “anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic views” should be aware that “theirs is not an intellectual debate it is a crime and one that will be punished under the law”.
Farida Belghoul sets out her views on the movement’s website about why the government’s ABC of equality curriculum is a not-very-well disguised version of the 1980s gender theory and why traditionalists should fight it.
Judging from her charismatic video performance, she might prove to be a more formidable opponent than Valls is currently prepared to admit.
Story: Ken Pottinger
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