I am very grateful to JJM who has answered my plea for information about what the French do with feminine nouns referring to masculine creatures (e.g. sentinelle, recrue) (see his note to “(s)he vs they”), and says that the French have less difficulty separating gender from sex than English speakers do.
Now comes the worrying part: Language Log reported last week that the French no longer agree on the genders of nouns: “Fifty-six native French speakers, asked to assign the gender of 93 masculine words, uniformly agreed on only 17 of them. Asked to assign the gender of 50 feminine words, they uniformly agreed only 1 of them”.
Does this mean that we foreigners can now ignore the problem, as we are likely to be “wrong” only as often as the native speakers?