Francois Hollande created the ‘family, children and women’s rights’ ministry in a cabinet reshuffle in February, and the backlash was almost immediate. Feminists across France condemned Hollande’s apparent intention to relegate women to the domestic sphere. MP Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet sarcastically tweeted that ‘Hollande forgot the sewing and ironing’, while Femen France remarked that the president had neglected to mention cooking and cleaning. Hollande’s reshuffle has downgraded the Ministry for Women’s Rights that he first resurrected from political obscurity in 2012, undermining the need for a ministry dedicated solely to women’s issues.
This development has drawn attention to the pre-election promises Hollande made in 2012, when the self-avowed feminist pledged to work for gender equality in politics and vowed to tighten sexual harassment legislation. This pledge came in the wake of a sexual assault scandal that shocked the French public, when presumptive presidential successor (and former International Monetary Fund director) Dominique Strauss-Kahn faced criminal charges for aggravated pimping and caused a media maelstrom after he assaulted a young chambermaid. Strauss-Kahn’s highly publicized escapades put a political culture of sexual harassment and virulent masculinism in the national spotlight. Previously, strict privacy laws in the country had prevented cases like this from being published, allowing ‘darker, sleazier corners of politicians personal lives’ to remain in the shadows. France finally seemed poised for change as politicians began to publicly acknowledge the need to initiate substantial reform in an environment of pervasive sexism. However, as Hollande’s pre-election cabinet reshuffle earns the ire of feminists, an important question remains: have French politics really changed?
The situation at the National Assembly seems to contradict such an assumption. Female Members of Parliament report having faced sexual harassment at work on a regular basis. Housing Minister Cecile Duflot was subjected to rowdy catcalls when she took the floor to speak about urban housing developments in a blue and white dress. MP Patrick Balkany stated that he was simply appreciating Ms. Duflot’s attire, and suggested, ‘perhaps she wore that dress so we wouldn’t listen to what she had to say’. Phillipe le Rey was fined when he incessantly clucked during Green Party MP Veronique Massonneau’s address, likening the woman to a ‘chicken’, a derogatory term for women in France. In November, Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem was accused of wearing earrings and a ‘provocative’ black dress as a ‘smokescreen’ to avoid answering questions about her plan for middle-school reform. Jean Paul-Brighelli, the head of Debout la France (France on its Feet) party, accused Vallud-Belkacem of flaunting a ‘visible bra line’, stating that her promiscuous behavior ‘is a public relations strategy as old as the planet.’
Politicians are not the only women who face harassment on the job. Forty female journalists submitted an open letter to the magazine Liberation to complain about the ubiquitous sexism they had encountered in France’s corridors of power. Reports of ‘lewd paternalism’ range from a politician taking photographs of a sleeping female journalist on a plane and sharing them with his colleagues to a ministerial adviser asking a woman if she was ‘tanned all over’ after the summer holidays. Other journalists were blatantly propositioned; many women reported offerings of ‘info in exchange for apero (a drink)’. Journalist Lenagin Bredoux affirmed that these invasive behaviors are remarkably successful, ‘I feel put in my place: that of a woman who should remain silent and inferior’. After the letter was published, women working at the Assembly came forward with even more shocking allegations: anonymous employees reported that officials had attempted to violently seduce them, and one woman arrived in an MP’s office for an interview to find a makeshift bed set up in the corner.
These attitudes are not confined to the political sphere, but are clearly apparent in nearly every sphere of public life in France. A survey found that 100 per cent of women had faced sexual harassment on public transportation in Paris. In 2014 in Lille, several women were attacked on the train while onlookers watched. The prevalence of unwanted advances and assaults has provoked the government to run a campaign on trains and metros explaining which behaviors constitute harassment, and reminding potential perpetrators that these acts carry legal ramifications.
These daily experiences seem to confirm that life in France remains a treacherous terrain for women to navigate, whether or not they have chosen to pursue a career in political life. Relaxed attitudes towards sexual harassment are commonplace and slow to adapt to changing perceptions of propriety and workplace decorum. Many people in France regard such concepts as American ‘puritanical’ moral codes that prohibit harmless flirtation from taking place in the workplace. These sentiments define a culture that Steven Erlanger describes as, ‘one of tolerance for male-centric attitudes in gender relations, an acceptance of all by the most egregious sexual assaults on women and a reluctance by the authorities to intervene.’ Many supporters of Strauss-Kahn regarded his sexual assault trial as a ‘feminist-led moral crusade’ and believed that his actions were ill-advised but not legally criminal. His legal defense evoked the Declaration of the Rights of Man, suggesting that privacy from such intrusive inquiries into private life is integral to French values of liberty and individual integrity.
While France is taking small steps to address the chauvinistic culture that defines its political sphere and public life, deeply ingrained norms remain hard to shake. Many cling to ‘French values’ and ‘still see a difference between France and American attitudes that they do not want to lose, including both flirtatiousness and discretion about the private, noncriminal lives of adults’. However, these ideals have a seedy underbelly. The country’s famously ‘relaxed’ attitudes about sex have on occasion translated into tacit approval of ‘casual’ harassment and unwanted advances, and respect for the private lives of French officials has often concealed predatory behavior and shameful abuses of power. While Hollande’s presidency has made definitive strides, regulating women’s rights to a domestic ministry undermines the pressing necessity of making France a safe and supportive place for women. Until women can speak on the floor of the National Assembly without fear of harassment from their male colleagues, this agenda cannot be sidelined or undercut.