France has sometimes credited itself with ‘inventing’ feminism during the French Revolution. It seems like French women have somehow managed to perfect work-life balance: around eighty per cent of mothers work full time, while sustaining the second highest birth rate in the European Union. The government has prioritized paid leave and state-funded nurseries, which ninety-nine of three to five year olds attend. Despite France’s notoriously relaxed attitudes towards sexual harassment in the workplace and on the street, many would argue that France is one the best places in the world to be a woman. There has been a certain valorisation of the uniquely and distinctively ‘French feminist,’ epitomized by preeminent figures like Simone de Beauvoir and Elisabeth Badinter and who embraces her sexuality. However, the ideal of a coherent French feminism has suffered from a series of contradictions and dissentions in the past decade.
The ‘mainstream’ approaches to feminism in France are intractable from the idea of ‘republican unity.’ This is a philosophy that imagines the French as a unified and indivisible people, and rejects the ‘communitarianism’ of affirmative action schemes and public displays of personal difference. The National Assembly’s 2000 debate on ‘Partie,’ essentially an affirmative action program to encourage equal representation in political life by establishing gender quotas in all parties, centred on these very principles. This movement opened a fraught debate in France and many prominent feminists, including Badinter and International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde, originally resisted this scheme fearing it would open a ‘Pandora’s box of particular claims’ through recognizing the ‘identity politics’ of political representation. Although it might seem paradoxical to outsiders, universalist ideals prevented prominent feminists from advocating for a program that would enforce quotas on political representation, even if said program would hugely benefit women.
Since the 2004 law banning ostentatious religious symbols in schools was enforced, the conflict between feminism and universalism has become increasingly apparent. This law was justified through the concept of laïcité, a particular French approach to secularism that seeks to confine religion to the private sphere. However, as this debate quickly centred on the presence of veil-wearing Muslim girls, the policy was increasingly justified with feminist appeals. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy defended this policy, and recommended further restrictions of the burqa and hijab, ‘The problem of the burqa is not a religious problem, it’s a problem of liberty and women’s dignity. It’s not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement.’ Sarkozy shifted the argument from the official rhetoric of laïcité to an appeal to ‘French values’ of gender equality, depicting the ban as an emancipatory measure for Muslim women. This rhetoric was adopted again during this summer’s burkini ban row. Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls supported the measure on the grounds that the conservative swimsuit represented ‘the enslavement of women.’ Valls expressed his own particular interpretation of feminism by evoking Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic immortalized in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People: ‘Marianne has naked breasts because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! This is the republic!’
The majority of France’s feminists fell in line with this conception, and those who condemned the 2004 law and burkini ban have sometimes been stigmatized by the mainstream. Last year, anti-racist campaigner Rokhaya Diallo was banned from speaking at a feminist event in the twentieth arrondissement by its Socialist mayor, Frederique Calandra. Calanda explained that she found Diallo’s overt campaigning for issues like the abolition of the 2004 law problematic, considering that ‘The act of covering women’s head with a veil indicating that they are, by nature, impure and temptresses for men, one will agree that Ms. Diallo’s feminist commitment does not seem obvious.’
Many of France’s feminists are not buying this rhetoric. Christine Delphy, who cofounded New Feminist Issues with Beauvoir in 1977, has admonished her mainstream contemporaries for its ‘reprehensible’ view of Muslim women in a Guardian opinion piece, stating that ‘France’s established feminist groups did not accept scarf-wearing women in their meetings’ even before 2004. Delphy has decried a feminism that has typified and marginalized ‘oppressed’ Muslim women whilst failing to consider ‘whether high heels, lipstick and multiple signs of femininity might just as well be labelled symbols of oppression.’ Muslim feminist Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan has placed French feminism within a long and bloody history of colonial imperialism in North Africa: ‘That type of feminism is one seeped in imperialism and hard-core racism.’ Scholars have also pointed out the dubious connection between republicanism and women’s rights: considering that women were not granted the right to vote until 1945, politicians that describe a distinctive French feminism dating back to the revolution are simply repeating a popular myth.
France’s feminist debate has emerged in a context of increased Muslim immigration and fears of Islamic terrorism— where republicanism and laïcité have been embraced by xenophobes and racists to legitimize discomfort with the country’s changing demographics. While many of France’s politicians and leading intellectuals have created a dichotomy between women’s rights and Islam, this ‘feminism’ evoked to defend policies that deprive women of free choice over their bodies has earned plenty of critics.