French Education Minister Vincent Peillon threatened Wednesday to sanction parents who pull their children from school after a wave of absenteeism sparked by a rumor about sex education that could become a new ideological battleground.

Thousands of parents in France received a text message on their mobile telephones last week urging them to keep their children from school on Monday. The collective action was to protest against an alleged new development in French primary schools: the attempt to teach students that “they are not born as boys or girls, but can choose to become one or the other.”

The grassroots campaign opposing the teaching of “gender theory” in French schools asked parents to go further by taking their kids out of school one day every month. It recommended this be done with no prior warning to teachers.

The message also alerted parents that sexual education will invade kindergarten classes “with practical examples” when the new school year starts in September.

The impact of the message, also relayed on online social networks, was limited in scope but nonetheless significant. Around 100 primary schools – out of a total of 48,000 in France – reported absent pupils in relation to the boycott, according to the education ministry.

Reactions from authorities and schools also came swiftly. On Wednesday, French Education Minister Vincent Peillon ordered principals across the country to summon any parent keeping their child from school in order to dispel the rumor and remind the adults that school is compulsory.

“The national school system is in no way teaching gender theory. It teaches equality from all points of view, and in particular, equality between women and men,” Peillon said.

Sylvie Fromentelle, vice president of the FCPE, France’s largest parent-teacher association, also rushed to calm fears. “They are trying to scare parents by telling them that [schools] are trying to challenge the biological basis of sexual identity,” she said in a note to group members, adding that gender theory did not exist within the social sciences or within French schools.

Familiar face, new agenda

However, many French leaders and rights advocates were quick to point out that the gender theory rumor was no simple mishap. They say it is part of a calculated campaign by conservative figures – some with ties to far-right groups – to oppose a new gender equality curriculum.

The so-called “ABCs of equality” program was introduced in some 600 primary school classes this year, and some French conservatives are outraged that it teaches tolerance of same-sex couples.

The Initiative To Pull Students From School, which has its own website, was launched by novelist and filmmaker Farida Belghoul.

As a youth in the early 1980s, Belghoul, who is of Algerian background, was a leading figure in a prominent movement against racial and sexual discrimination in France. But Belghoul has now surprised many former admirers by publicly supporting controversial writer and commentator Alain Soral.

A former party officer in France’s far-right National Front, Soral regularly rages against feminists and homosexuals, and has been found guilty of anti-Semitic speech in the past.

He also has ties to anti-Semitic comic Dieudonné, whose shows were banned in at least four French cities this month.

Battling the ‘ABCs of equality’

Belghoul’s school-skipping move has also received the support of ultra-conservative Catholic groups, like the French Spring and Civitas, which helped organise the massive anti-gay marriage protests in France last year.

At the time both those groups were asked to keep their distance from the official marches because their positions were considered too radical.

While Belghoul has carefully avoided directly challenging the "ABCs" program – she never mentions it by name, instead raging against gender theory – groups like Civitas are not pulling punches.

For the strict traditionalists, the underlying concern is presenting homosexuality to young students as normal. After unsuccessfully fighting to safeguard the institution of marriage from same-sex couples, schools have become their new front.

Civitas called minister Peillon a liar on Wednesday as it endorsed Belghoul. “Thanks to Farida Belghoul numerous parents have been alerted about an unnatural and perverse ideology that is being taught as early as pre-school under the guise of equality and ‘the fight against homophobia’,” the group said.

It decried the alleged use of a book called “I have two dads that love each other”, among others, suggested for “ABCs” lesson plans.

France's Socialist government and its allies have defended the program in the wake of the scandal. “Above else, it is aimed at teaching that boys and girls are equal, with the ultimate goal of combating sexual discrimination,” the FCPE’s Fromentelle said.

Peillon and teachers will be carefully scrutinizing roll call lists next Monday, hoping school attendance levels will be back to normal.

While gay marriage was legalized in France last year, the magnitude of the anti-gay marriage movement caught everyone by surprise. A new ideology-fueled storm may be on the horizon.

[Image: 'Diverse group of middle-school children in class' via Shutterstock]