French Socialists rethink family reforms after protests expose a growing culture war

The Associated Press

Tourists take in the view, in Montmartre district, overlooking Paris, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

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By LORI HINNANT and SYLVIE CORBET, Associated Press

PARIS (AP) — Declaring that France should change with the times, the government wants to promote gender equality in schools and give unmarried and same-sex couples with children similar rights as married ones.

Yet a brewing culture war suggests that many French aren't ready to do that just yet.

President Francois Hollande's Socialists have run into unexpectedly strong pressure from an alliance of conservative Catholics, Muslims and the political right over a landmark reform to family rights in France. The divisions have even seeped into the ruling party, which is already facing broad criticism about its handling of France's lackluster economy.

The reform plan was shelved indefinitely this week after tens of thousands of demonstrators protested against what they called France's "family-phobic" government. The government retorted it had already planned to delay the proposals to increase access to in vitro fertilization and redefine custody rights and adoption law.

Meanwhile, a wildcat movement of parents yanked their children from schools in recent weeks in reaction to rumored plans to teach gender studies. Education Minister Vincent Peillon has written to educators, saying efforts to boost equality among boys and girls, reinforce mutual respect and fight stereotypes had fanned a rumor mill about "supposed gender theory" being taught to young kids. He urged them to call in those parents behind the protest for talks.

The protests have epitomized the French government's struggle to communicate with the public and adopt policies that polls originally showed were favored by most French. Now the government doesn't want to expend too much political capital on the topic when most French are worrying about the sputtering economy above all.

"When I see what we have done in the past 20 months, never have there been so many reforms. At the same time, I want them to take place in a calm environment, but things have become overheated, hysterical," Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told France 2 television Thursday. He said the administration would avoid tackling the family topics until after municipal elections next month that are expected to be a barometer for Socialist support.

These debates might sound familiar to Americans and others long resigned to acid exchanges between political camps, according to French sociologist Erwan Lecoeur. But it's been a long time since France has been pulled apart over social issues — and never before has there been such an alliance of conservative Catholics, Muslims, the far right and the conservative UMP party.

"They are trying to press their advantage at a time when they think the state is weakened," Lecoeur said. "Very strange alliances are forming in the street — alliances of the discontented. But they are fragile."

Loosening restrictions on IVF, limited in France to heterosexual couples, is the most sensitive subject — and one the government says will not be addressed until 2015.

With modern families taking different forms, Family Minister Dominique Bertinotti says new legislation is needed for the changing times. She claims critics are peddling misinformation.

"Is divorce a right or left issue?" she asked a conservative senator Thursday in the upper house of parliament. "You can always stir fears, fantasies ... it doesn't suffice to repeat false ideas 'X' number of times for it to become true."

Yet Herve Mariton, a conservative lawmaker, told The Associated Press that the Socialists' plan would mean "the destruction of the family model."

"Recognize the different family situations today? Yes. Show solidarity with the most hard-pressed? Yes. Not stigmatize? Yes," he said. "But ... we affirm loudly and strongly that it's better for a child to have a father and a mother, and all family models are not equal."