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Can boys wear skirts? France divided by gender stereotyping experiment in primary schools

Experimental scheme called the 'ABCD of equality' was introduced in 275 primary schools last autumn and aims to overcome 'unconscious' stereotyping of boys and girls

The French government sought to end months of bitter controversy over a scheme to combat gender stereotyping by scrapping a disputed primary school experiment but expanding gender equality training to all teachers.

Amid wild rumours and fears that gender theory had been imported from America, parents at about 100 schools had pulled their children out of classes in a mass boycott in January. It was claimed that boys were being forced to wear skirts and taught to masturbate. One protest, led by ultra-Catholics and the far-right who accused the Socialist government of destroying traditional family values, brought 100,000 demonstrators onto the streets in February.

The experimental scheme, baptised the “ABCD of equality”, was introduced in 600 classes in 275 primary schools last autumn. The Education Minister Benoît Hamon announced on Monday that from September the “action plan” would be extended across the country from nursery schools to secondary schools. He said that up to 330,000 teachers would be trained to instruct boys and girls that they are equal and should have equal opportunities to study and work.

“I want school to stop being a battlefield,” he said, on France Inter radio. He denied suggestions that the government was “backing down” on the scheme. But he acknowledged some parents had a “misperception”. “Some people thought it was about sexual education,” he said.

“I regret these battles of adults,” he went on. “The child is our priority.”

Mr Hamon said the new curriculum, which comes into force in 2016, would take gender equality into account in all subjects. The training aimed to overcome “unconscious” stereotyping which for example leads to more time spent teaching boys than girls.

“The aim is not to deny the differences” between boys and girls, he said, “but to show that they are equal by law.”

By extending the programme while ditching the experiment, the government is attempting to shore up support on the left while reassuring opponents who feared the government was trying to impose gender theory. Opponents included the leader of the centre-right UMP, Jean-François Copé, who had pointed to a children’s book, entitled Tous à Poil (All in the Buff), as an example of gender theory. It turned out that the book had never been on any education ministry list.