No nudity please, we're... French! Gloves off – and everything else – over children's book 'All in the Buff'

Book designed to help French children accept bodies of all shapes and sizes is causing an outsize row

Paris

No nudity please, we're French.... A strange prudishness has seized a section of political opinion in France – a country that habitually mocks the alleged sexual squeamishness of "les Anglo-Saxons". The leader of the main centre-right opposition party, Jean-François Copé, declared on television last week that his "blood ran cold" when he read a children's book called Tous à poil (All in the Buff).

The book has comical drawings of ordinary people – policemen, bakers, and teachers – taking off their clothes. Its aim is to teach small children not to be obsessed with perfect bodies.

According to Mr Copé, the book is being forced on primary school children as part of a campaign by an "ideologically rigid" socialist government to subvert traditional attitudes to gender and the family. Tous à poil had sold only 1,000 copies before Mr Copé's comments on television made it sound like a blend of the Marquis de Sade and Karl Marx for five-year-olds. Sales have since rocketed and the book is now the second best-selling French-language book on Amazon.

It is sweet and funny, but some might feel that it was "mis-sold" by Mr Copé, president of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

Tous à poil book is on no official education ministry lists. It is recommended reading in some school districts, but has been there since Nicolas Sarkozy, the former leader of Mr Copé's party, was in power in 2010.

Mr Copé's remarks have been widely mocked by in French media. The French are, after all, supposed to be relaxed about nudity – they invented topless sun-bathing; there is hardly a French movie without a nude scene; and French advertisers use female bodies (always perfect) to sell everything from cars to pasta.

Jean-François Copé said his 'blood ran cold' on seeing the children's book Jean-François Copé said his 'blood ran cold' on seeing the children's book All this would be mildly amusing if the remarks were not part of a campaign – partly sincere, partly cynical – to radicalise the political debate in France along moral and cultural "identity" lines. Mr Copé was trying, clumsily, to hitch himself to a bandwagon launched in recent months by ultra-Catholic conservatives and by the extreme nationalist right.

According to this campaign, the law passed last June permitting gay marriage in France was just the thin end of a socialist, gay (and, some add, Jewish) plot to destroy the traditional family values of western civilisation.

Tous à poil aims to show children different body types and encourage them not to be obsessed by body image Tous à poil aims to show children different body types and encourage them not to be obsessed by body image The main focus of the attacks in recent weeks has been an experimental programme in some French primary schools. The programme, called "the ABCD of equality", seeks to break down gender stereotypes by encouraging little girls and boys to imagine themselves in non-traditional roles (such as girls as truck-drivers or boys as dancers).

According to its right-wing opponents, this is part of a concerted drive by the left and "le lobby gay" to impose something called "gender theory" (i.e. that all sense of gender identity is the result of social conditioning and must be abolished).

Rather than criticise the programme itself, opponents have sought to generate a mood of paranoia and hysteria.

A group linked to the anti-Semitic writer Alain Soral conducted a successful email and text campaign last month to persuade Muslim and black parents that their primary-age children were being told to cross-dress and masturbate in class.

The children’s book Tous à poil is causing controversy The children’s book Tous à poil is causing controversy Ultra-Catholic campaigners, claiming to represent superior moral values, refused to dissociate themselves from this outlandish campaign. They are harassing bookshops to force the withdrawal of all children's books that present adults in non-traditional gender roles, such as Papa porte une robe (Daddy Wears a Dress).

Because gender theory is supposed to be an American progressive plot, placards on recent right-wing demonstrations in France have read, in English: "No Gender". Opponents of gender theory call themselves "les anti-gender". In other words, they sound as if they are trying to abolish "gender" rather than champion it.

The clandestine teaching of gender theory in France is a myth, according to the Education Minister, Vincent Peillon. So, it seems, is the teaching of English.

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