Sam Ball — France 24 May 16, 2014
There was a tense standoff outside a French school Thursday as protesters massed to campaign against a planned anti-sexism initiative in which male pupils have been invited to attend classes wearing skirts.
Around 150 members of the “Manif pour Tous” (Protest for All) group – which began as a movement against France’s legalisation of gay marriage last year – gathered outside the Lycée Clémenceau school in the city of Nantes in west France on Thursday afternoon, AFP reported.
They were met by a group of around one hundred students and left-wing campaigners who, standing opposite, chanted “no fascists in schools” and “equality”.
Video footage showed one student climbing a wall where, to cheers from supporters, he took off his trousers and put on a skirt.
Eggs were thrown in the direction of the Manif pour Tous protesters, reported AFP, while a few scuffles between the two groups broke out before the demonstrators were dispersed.
The standoff was the result of a controversial anti-sexism and pro-equality initiative in which male pupils at 27 high schools belonging to the “Academy of Nantes” education authority will have the option of wearing skirts to school this Friday, May 16.
Named “Lift the Skirt”, the initiative was the idea of students elected to an academic council, but has been backed by education authorities in Nantes meaning it also has the de facto approval of the Ministry of Education.
Spurred by a “feeling of daily discrimination” against female pupils in schools, the students “wanted to take action to promote awareness and change perceptions”, said a press release by the Academy of Nantes. “Thus “Lift the Skirt” day was born,” it said.
Those who prefer not to wear a skirt also have the option of wearing a sticker instead, reading: “I am fighting against sexism, are you?”
An option, not a demand
The initiative, announced Wednesday, quickly drew the scorn of French conservatives, partly because of confusion as to whether boys were in fact being ordered to wear skirts to school, or simply being given the option.
Right-leaning French daily Le Figaro ran a headline on its website claiming that education authorities in Nantes were “demanding” that boys wear skirts to school. Though the newspaper later amended this to say the school was “inviting” male pupils to don female attire, the mistake had already been picked up by numerous conservative politicians and activists.
Christine Boutin, leader of the French Christian Democratic Party and well-known anti-gay marriage campaigner, tweeted: “It goes on! The Academy of Nantes asks boys to wear skirts,” before citing the Le Figaro article.
Manif pour Tous described the initiative as “scandalous” and called for the French Education Minister Benoît Hamon to intervene and cancel the event immediately.
“[I]t is not a trivial matter,” the group’s president Ludovine de La Rochère said. “It is a form of cross-dressing and is therefore a denial of the boys’ sexual identity,” she continued. “It is disrespectful to masculinity and femininity.”
Education Minister Hamon moved to clear up the confusion Wednesday, telling the French parliament that the suggestion boys were being made to wear skirts was “absolutely false” and a lie “peddled by radical groups”.
Manif pour Tous responded by saying in a statement that it had “never said that boys would be obliged to wear a skirt” but that simply giving them the option to do so was “bad enough”.
‘No to gender theory’
The issue of gender in school has become something of an ideological battle ground in France in recent months, following the introduction of a new gender equality curriculum earlier this year.
The so-called “ABCD of Equality” initiative outraged some French conservatives as it teaches tolerance of same-sex couples.
There were also claims the curriculum intends to teach pupils “gender theory” – that gender and sexuality are social constructs – a scare that led some parents to pull their children from school in protest in January.
Despite government reassurance that there are no plans to teach gender theory in schools, the issue remains a concern for conservatives.
At Thursday’s demonstration, Manif pour Tous protesters carried placards with slogans reading “gender theory is not my choice” and “no to gender theory”, while the organisation Wednesday launched a “national consultation” on the ABCD of Equality programme.
Despite the outcry, Friday’s “Lift the Skirt” event is not the first initiative of its kind to be seen in France. A similar event held at schools in April last year passed with little controversy, Elisabeth Costagliola, head of the parents’ organisation PEEP told Le Figaro on Wednesday.
“On the contrary, it was really positive with students saying that even some male teachers were prepared to come to school in a skirt,” she said.