Dora Moutot > Judith Butler (Eric Fougere/Corbis via Getty Images)

March 17, 2023   6 mins

A bit like Napoleon, radical transactivism is moving swiftly and imperviously across Europe. Blithe to the consequences for women, lesbians, and gay men, pan-European LGBT organisations such as ILGA Europe are lobbying hard for governments to introduce self-ID, and also to outlaw so-called “conversion therapy” — in other words, talking therapies — for dysphoric people planning to cut off their body parts.

So far, it seems to be working. ILGA is well-funded and has great influence, both with national governments and in the EU. Belgium brought in self-ID in 2018. Spain did so in February this year, as did Finland. Undeterred by the fiasco of Nicola Sturgeon putting male rapists in female prisons in the name of inclusivity, Germany and the Netherlands are teetering on the brink.

In France, meanwhile, a very French version of this culture war is playing out. On the side of those insisting that biological differences matter socially and politically is feminist Dora Moutot, who is facing a lawsuit from transactivists for accurately describing a transwoman as a “trans-identified male” on TV last year. In the past few months, Moutot has launched the “Femelliste” website with fellow feminist Marguerite Stern, aimed at explaining to a mostly uncomprehending French public some of the main problems caused by transactivism, as they see it.

Also on Moutot’s side is Catholic commentator Eugénie Bastié, signatory to a public letter in support of Moutot, and author of a recently published book-length essay entitled Sauver La Différence Des Sexes (Save Sex Differences). Moutot is a social media influencer and a former writer for Vice magazine. She also runs a website dedicated to increasing the number of female orgasms in the world. On the face of it, then, she is a strange bedfellow with a conservative like Bastié. Such is the extremity of transactivism, however, almost everyone who isn’t chronically underinformed or under 25 ends up on the other side of it eventually.

According to The Times, Bastié argues in her new book that — thanks to a legacy of biology-denial, whether under the guise of feminism or transactivism — “women struggle to combine a career and childcare, and men, shorn of role models and their ancestral identity, become sad porn addicts”. Sticking to a well-established script, her opponents on the progressive Left have fought back this week with an equally broad brush. Writing in Libération, philosopher Camille Froidevaux-Metterie insists that Bastié is wrong: allowing that men can become women is a laudable extension of the project of changing patriarchal social norms.

Although what we have here is a dynamic simultaneously playing out across a number of Western stages — that is, a provisional and uneasy alliance among those who think there are limits to human bodily plasticity, against those who think there are none — there are also some unmistakably French elements in the mix. One is the unfeasible glamour of everyone involved. Another is the sheer aggression with which Parisian transactivists are currently pursuing Moutot and Stern, throwing ugly death threats all over the place in classically hyperemotional Gallic style.

The final national giveaway is the desire to blame the Anglosphere for all of it. Bastié, according to The Times, thinks she knows the culprit for the parlous social predicament of the sexes: “the arrival in France of British and American theories involving a ‘totalitarian’ cancel culture and the negation of biological realities”.

Frankly, this strikes me as a bit rich. French philosophers can hardly be let off the hook for the currently popular belief in the near-total malleability of the human body through choice. Arguably, they are up to their chic black polonecks in the matter. Descartes was a big fan of cleaving inner minds from “divisible” corporeal bodies. Four centuries after that, Jean-Paul Sartre gave us the slogan that “existence precedes essence” — the idea (roughly) that the meaning of being human is not fixed by membership of a shared animal species, but rather forged through conscious choice. Admittedly he probably didn’t have a choice of body parts in mind when he wrote that, but it’s not clear on what grounds he could object.

Simone de Beauvoir, meanwhile, viewed female biology as inherently an “obstacle” to women and something that it would be better to be able to transcend. Then came Michel Foucault, arguing that distinguishing between types of humans could only ever be a means of covertly exercising power over them. Foucault thought the idea that human concepts captured some pre-existent natural reality was moot. Radical feminists such as Monique Wittig took up this cause in the Eighties, claiming there was no “natural grouping” of women at all, but only a perniciously politically motivated one designed to oppress… women. (No, me neither.)

All of this sexy-sounding stuff about the power of humans to build big things with their words was too much for passing Americans to resist. Judith Butler took Foucault and Wittig’s ideas and translated them for US audiences in her books Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, sometimes in sentences lasting an entire page. Graduate students swooned. Et tout le monde connaît la suite.

But when it comes to building the scaffolding for transactivist success, it is not just the provision of an intellectual background for which we can thank France. Arguably, no other European country has done more to make certain versions of femininity look irresistible, both to women and to men. It’s hard not to equate cultural expressions of femininity with womanhood when they look so bloody beguiling that nobody can see straight. The coltish, gamine, doe-eyed ingénue template was trademarked there, as was the blonde bombshell. A thousand French songwriters have added to the mystique of women with twinkling eyes and a sentimental tremor in their voices. And a thousand French plastic surgeons have artfully improved on the basic model. When Charles Aznavour sang in his most famous tribute that “She may be the mirror of my dream”, it is perhaps not surprising that some men took this as a hint.

It will be interesting to see how transactivist pressure plays out in France in the months to come. There are some promising signs of dissent, at least as far as the medicalisation of children is concerned. Twelve “old-school” Leftist members on the scientific council of the government body responsible for tackling discrimination recently denounced the “symbolic violence and often physical violence” faced by scientists who questioned treatments such as puberty blockers and hormones for minors. Unfortunately, though, the equality minister’s symbolically violent response to this was to disband the scientific council altogether.

When it comes to the issue of males in woman-only spaces and sports teams, meanwhile, it is hard to believe that France will prove as susceptible as the US and the UK, even despite its own philosophical traditions. For one thing, it’s difficult to imagine that a nation so firmly psychologically committed to exaggerated social differences between the sexes could ever properly fall for the idea that there aren’t any at all. Feminism has barely reached the masses yet, let alone wild ideas about gender identity. (Only in France — and I say this with genuine admiration — could you find a group of women responding to #MeToo by calling for a defence of their “right to seduce”.) And there’s also the fact that secularism is the norm in the public sphere in France. The strong whiff of religiosity in transactivists will surely put many people’s antennae up.

Then again, I’ve written before about how the British and US versions of transactivism involve grim alliances between radicals and petty bureaucrats. The former just want to move fast and break things, removing boundaries wherever they find them, mostly for the sake of it. The latter, in contrast, like making up new rules and telling people what to do. Bastié may think of cancel culture as an Anglo-American phenomenon, but cancel culture is also essentially bureaucratic, and there is a well-established love of red tape in France. What greater bureaucratic project could there be than rearranging every sex-separated space or resource to accommodate gender identity instead?

In the end though, it may be France’s own intellectual tradition that saves the day. The national baccalaureate exam still has a philosophy component within it, and last time I looked at a Parisian newsstand, there were several specialist philosophical magazines for the general public in circulation. In short, French people still care about abstract ideas. Unlike in the UK, it’s not considered somewhat embarrassing to have them. Uncritically spouting half-baked French ideas may still work for English-speaking academics as a shorthand for the possession of intellectual depth, but it’s unlikely to do the same for native thinkers.

And French philosophy is not a monolith — there are plenty of thinkers happy to accept that there are independent limits set by the natural world, which don’t depend on our thoughts or choices. With a bit of luck then, French philosophers will soon be ridiculing the idea that biological sex is completely malleable — and the parts of the world most susceptible to the allure of Gallic sophistication will breathe a sigh of relief.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.