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Radical chic and a very French culture war

Sartre and de Beauvoir in 1986. Francois Lochon/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

Like Napoleon in the 19th century, radical trans activism is “moving swiftly” across Europe, says Kathleen Stock in UnHerd, and in France it has ignited a very French version of the culture war. The influential commentator Eugénie Bastié, who is a strong believer that biological differences matter, blames Britain and America for pushing the idea that they don’t. “Frankly, this strikes me as a bit rich.” What about French philosophers? “Arguably, they are up to their chic black polo necks in the matter.” Four centuries ago, René Descartes wrote of separating our inner minds from our corporeal beings. Jean-Paul Sartre coined the phrase “existence precedes essence” – we are what we make of ourselves.

Simone de Beauvoir saw female biology as merely an “obstacle”, while to Michel Foucault distinguishing between types of humans was just a means of “covertly exercising power over them”. Americans couldn’t resist importing all this “sexy-sounding stuff” and translating it for a US audience. Yet despite les philosophes, France is unlikely to be as susceptible as America or Britain to the notion that males can compete in women-only sport or use women-only spaces. This is a nation still strongly committed to differences between the sexes. Feminism has “barely reached the masses yet”, let alone “wild ideas about gender identity”. Only in France would you find a group of women responding to #MeToo by calling for a defence of their “right to seduce”.