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French government retreats on teaching boy-girl equality in schools after parent protests

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PARIS - France is scrapping a plan to teach children the "ABCD of equality" between boys and girls after protests by some parents who feared it was a stealth effort to erase gender differences — a new example of the Socialist government's failure to stick to its promises and a growing ability of conservative Catholics to weigh on policy.

A vocal minority has been increasingly influential in pushing back against France's leftist government on a range of social issues. In recent months, it has succeeded in getting officials to delay approval of medically-assisted procreation for gay couples and abandon an environmental tax on long-distance trucks, and is lobbying against a drive to legalize euthanasia.

The Education Ministry said Monday it would replace the "ABCD of equality" program, which was introduced at some schools earlier this year and aimed at encouraging boys and girls to see themselves and their opportunities as equal.

The policy had been trialed at 275 schools and had come under attack from Roman Catholic leaders, the French far right, and some parents' groups. Critics say the plan is insulting to professions that have been traditionally female, and expressed fear that it promoted a supposed gender theory that would deny any differences between boys and girls.

Officials said teachers would receive new training when the new school year begins in September, and that they will be able to decide how to broach the topic of fairness for the sexes, especially with the youngest students.

Education Minister Benoit Hamon insisted that the government's goal is "not to deny a difference" but to show that boys and girls "are equal."

"We want to prevent anyone from forming the conviction at school that there would be ... jobs and training and diplomas for girls, and jobs and training and diplomas for boys," he said Monday on France Inter radio.

France's minister for women's rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, told France 3 television the new plan would include all schools and would be an "improved" version of the original.

Feminist groups denounced the backtracking, while others welcomed Monday's decision.

The group Vigi-gender, which had pushed for the withdrawal of the "ABCD of equality," said the government didn't go far enough. Esther Pivet, co-ordinator of the group, argued that "gender stereotypes ... are references for children. Small children need such references."

Christian Chevalier, head of the SE-UNSA teacher union, said: "This atmosphere that puts teachers in the frontline of the battle in certain schools doesn't help equality between boys and girls, which needs to be addressed in serenity."

The leftist government has faced pressure from conservative Catholics, Muslims and the resurgent far right over various issues.

After a harsh battle over gay marriage — legalized last year amid nationwide protests — the government has delayed action on increased access to in vitro fertilization for gay couples.

In February, tens of thousands of demonstrators protested over a reform to family rights in France, accusing the government of being "family-phobic." A few weeks later, controversy erupted on "skirt day," an anti-sexism initiative in which male students are invited to attend classes wearing skirts.

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