Gender and the French

Writing in Friday’s edition of the Guardian newspaper in the UK, Zoe Williams deconstructed the current state of feminism in France and pretty much concluded, as Bernard-Henri Lévy, the philosopher, put it: “France is an old Gallic macho country.”

She pointed out the contradictions inherent to a country that has been the European crucible of feminist thought (including Simone de Beauvoir, Christine Delphy, and Hélène Cixious to Virginie Despentes), but where standards of dress, appearance and behaviour are formally – and some would say narrowly – drawn to constrain women’s self-expression.

“The women seem bedevilled by standards that are either unattainable (to be a perfect size eight) or demeaning in themselves (to be restrained, demure, moderate in all things, poised; a host of qualities that all mean ‘quiet’),” Williams wrote.

All true, I would say, from a year I spent working in France and several visits thereafter. But French men are also expected to be slim, well-groomed, well-dressed, quiet and sophisticated. Lack of style is not just about appearance for the French – it shows a lack of judgment, of finesse, of cultivation.

Earlier this month, Emily Maitlis, the British journalist, presented a programme for BBC2 investigating why the popularity ratings of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, have plummeted so devastatingly. “President Bling-Bling”, as the French popular press has dubbed him, displays a range of characteristics that flout the French code of public mores.

The programme concluded that Sarkozy’s celebrity lifestyle – populist, flamboyant and loud – was more a root cause of the country’s disaffection with their president than unpopular measures such as raising the pensionable age to 62.

In the latest World Economic Forum Global Pay Gap ranking, France ranks a poor 46th – significantly behind the UK (15th) and Germany (13th). Yet France is one of the world’s best places to be a working woman, with state-sponsored crèches and écoles maternelles (nursery schools) in every village and arrondissement.

Last year, France spent $135bn, or 5.1 per cent, of its gross domestic product – twice the EU average – on family, childcare and maternity benefits. As a result, French women now have about two babies on average, compared with 1.5 in the EU overall.

Williams argues that French politics remain closed to most women, drawing almost exclusively from the country’s competitive and elite graduate schools. She cites high-profile French politicians such as Martine Aubry (daughter of Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission) and Marine Le Pen (daughter of Jean-Marie, former head of France’s far-right National Front), who have achieved political power by an accident of birth rather than personal success.

And yet Christine Lagarde, France’s minister of finance and the only female finance minister in the Group of Eight, failed to get into the elite École Nationale d’Administration graduate school and instead pursued a glittering career with Baker & McKenzie, the US law firm, before entering French political life. No one would accuse her of getting to the top by dynastic default.

According to data from France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, 82 per cent of the country’s National Assembly are men. Yet in January this year the same assembly approved compulsory quotas for women on the boards of French companies.

It is an oversimplification to judge the French obsession with savoir-faire and savoir-vivre as sexist and an obstacle to women’s progress in business life. While women may shoulder the lion’s share of responsibilities for children and home (where in the world is that not the case?), at least the state provides outstanding support.

And while there may be too few women at the top of French professional life, the National Assembly has shown considerable courage and resolve by voting in quotas.

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