As French President Francois Hollande returns home from a three-day state visit to the U.S., he may be wishing he had stretched his trip out for a few more days. Lord knows Hollande will not be given a hero's welcome back home. As the fallout from his handling of his private life continues, the president's handling of France's public life stands in equally bad repute: France's unemployment rate (12 percent and climbing) threatens to overtake Hollande's popularity rating (19 percent and falling). Yet, just when affairs could not get any worse, they did: Last month France discovered that the government was covertly teaching boys to become girls, and encouraging school children to question their sexual identity.
Or so ran the rumors, which first surfaced at the end of January. As they expanded via text messages and tracts, they became more expansive: gay teachers, it turned out, most often led these classes, in which they also encouraged their young charges to masturbate. Moreover, a government minister had declared that France's children belong to the state, not to their parents. Urged to protest this pedagogy of perversion -- labeled by its critics as "gender theory" -- parents kept their children home: by the end of January, grade schools across France reported high levels of student absenteeism.
In the face of this popular panic, school administrators also began to panic. Parents demanded to know why their children were being taught to doubt what nature, or God, had given them. What to do? Predictably, official denials of these claims simply gave them greater credibility in the eyes of worried parents. When the minister of education, Vincent Peillon, reminded parents that it was illegal to keep their children from school, the extreme right-wing politician Marine Le Pen accused him of "aggravating the situation" while conservative opponents of the Socialist government warn that it is "playing the sorcerer's apprentice."
Similarly, the mainstream media's skeptical accounts of these "folles rumeurs" struggled to compete with alternative sources on the Internet that propagated them. (In fact, an extreme right wing website improbably named "Equality and Reconciliation" appears to have launched the rumor.) What Le Monde labeled a "fronde" -- the word for "sling," denoting the popular rebellions against the French monarchy in the 17th century -- has yet to be tamped down. Just recently, there unfurled along the boulevards of Paris a vast demonstration protesting the government's perceived "family-phobia." The same groups behind last year's "Manif pour tous" demonstrations against the legalization of gay marriage had begun to orchestrate this particular demonstration well before the rumor took hold. Needless to say, they welcomed its galvanizing effect: while police placed the number of demonstrators at 80,000, the organizers claimed 500,000.
Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between. Can the same be said, though, of the competing claims of the government and its opponents? Remarkably, the soil from which the rumor sprouted was thoroughly unremarkable. Late last year, the government introduced a new course in several dozen grade schools. The program, given the moniker "The ABC of Equality," is one part common sense, one part gender theory for kids. The children were taught that while certain differences between the sexes were determined by our biology, others are "constructed" by society. For the Ministry of Education, one needn't be Judith Butler -- who, quite suddenly, has been thrust into the French media's limelight -- to appreciate such an approach.
Of course, the epidemiology of rumors does not recognize national borders; all nations are liable to such epidemics. We need think only of, say, Orson Wells' "War of the Worlds" radio address, or, more recently, claims that Barack Obama is not an American citizen. Yet rumors flourish only in fertile soil. For most Americans in 1938, it was not a great step from the reality of Nazi Germany's destructive march across the continent to the fantasy of insidious invaders from Mars.
By the same token, there is something peculiarly French about these rumors of gender bending. Rumors have not just a long history in France, but also tend to make history. Most notably, this year marks the 225th anniversary of "The Great Fear": the wave of panic that swept much of the country following the fall of the Bastille. Worried over harvests reduced by a long drought, farmers "learned" that the nobility planned to impound what little there was. Of course, their credulity was reinforced by an ageless animosity toward their local lords, as well as news from Paris about the aristocracy's resistance to revolutionary events. The peasantry was thus especially vulnerable to what historian George Lefebvre called "the monstrous false news." A vast wave of destruction, aimed at tax offices and local nobles, exploded across the country, hastening the revolutionary changes that Paris had first set in motion.
With this latest outbreak of "monstrous false news," is France facing yet another "Great Fear"? Over the last quarter of a century, France seems to have erased one traditional frontier after another. With the creation of the European Union, France surrendered significant control of its physical and judicial borders; with the burgeoning of globalization, its mastery of its commercial and cultural frontiers is also besieged. For many, the last rampart, the final frontier, is the traditional family. This is not the case only for conservative Catholics. Many French Muslims and Jews also oppose state interference in what they see as the one domain left to them: the family.
Earlier this month, the government beat a hasty retreat, withdrawing a proposed law that opponents believed would allow gay couples to adopt children. This "Great Fear," apparently, has yet to run its course.