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Do French women need feminism?

Working French women, backed by generous government policies, enjoy a reputation for 'having it all.' But that may not mean what Americans might think.

By , Staff writer , Correspondent

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    Gwladys Bernard (l.) and Clémentine Pirlot of La Barbe (the beard), a French feminist group, pose by a Paris subway wearing the group’s trademark fake beards.
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When ex-model and former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy made comments in the December issue of Paris Vogue declaring, "My generation doesn't need feminism," Anne-Cécile Mailfert, one of many French women catching the news on her iPhone, was aghast.

"What? No way! We have to do something," she characterizes the collective response of the organization she serves as spokesperson for, Osez Le Féminisme or "Dare to be a Feminist." They launched a Twitter barrage with the hashtag "#DearCarlaBruni, we need feminism because…" leaving French women to fill in the "why" for themselves.

"#DearCarlaBruni, we need feminism because people always assume I'm the secretary," was one common tweet. The campaign got so much attention that it finally prompted an apology from Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy – and handed a win to French feminists.

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From afar, many think French women don't need such victories, at least when it comes to the child/work balance that so eludes American women. When Anne-Marie Slaughter published her polemic article in The Atlantic titled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," which was devoured and debated by working mothers across the United States, not a few pointed out that French women often can have it all, thanks to social welfare policies that are virtually unmatched around the world. The subhead of a Slate article from November read, "Maybe working moms can have it all – in France."

But that's only half the story – the other half having been brought to the fore after Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and aspirant to the French presidency, was accused of sexually assaulting a New York City hotel maid in May 2011. The case shocked many with its frank discussion of certain commonly held French attitudes toward women.

In fact the Gallic nation, which spawned such strong feminist figures as Simone de Beauvoir, struggles to surpass its European neighbors in terms of gender equality, even as Christine Lagarde now runs the IMF and French President François Hollande introduced gender parity in his cabinet. French women sit in the bottom half of Europe's rankings on a slew of measures from the most recent 2012 World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index – even taking last place on the group's perceived wage-equality survey indicator – while sexism and even sexual harassment have been overlooked or disregarded as the necessary evil of an otherwise lovely cultural relationship between men and women. Just recently all the government's ministers were sent to 45-minute anti-sexism classes.

Marilyn Baldeck, a young feminist and head of the European Association Against Violence Toward Women at Work, says that she butts heads with deeply held social mores.

"There is cheese, bullfighting, and the French way of seduction," she says. "We are being accused of wanting to sanitize the relationships between men and women.... [It] is claimed to be a puritanical feminism ... an American type of feminism."

Pro-childbearing, not-so-pro-equality

On the brisk Parisian streets of winter, mothers dressed in stylish boots and overcoats roll narrow strollers, all covered with rain and wind flaps, down the sidewalks, en route to day-care centers and schools, many of them sponsored by the state. Such programs are one of several policies that help French parents balance work and family. Day-care centers, called crèches, are subsidized by the state. If mothers can't find places in the state-run crèches, they share nannies and receive generous tax refunds that make having a nanny affordable. Preschools are free, and all day, for children as young as 3.

"Having children and working is highly valued in France," says Hélène Périvier, codirector of the gender program at the SciencesPo university in Paris and mother of three young children. In Germany, for example, women are frowned upon – stigmatized as "crows" – for wanting to work, she says. "It has a deep impact on society."

Generous state support for working mothers is widely endorsed by French women, but many argue that, having hailed from a historic pro-childbearing effort, French women haven't really promoted gender or social equality.

"Domestic labor remains women's domain, crèche places are more accessible to those in wealthy urban areas, and career compromise after parenthood remains largely a female sacrifice," says Simon Jackson, an English historian at SciencesPo.

Still, many wouldn't wish it away. Stephanie Lumbers has a toddler and is expecting another child this month. She returned to work in marketing when her first child was 5 months old and now shares a nanny with another family. "We have it better than most mothers," she says. Unlike many American women, who commonly say they struggle to balance home and work, she says no one in her circle of friends – though she concedes she is among a privileged circle – lists that balance as their major concern.

That isn't the only aspect of being a French woman that is worthy of envy. Stereotypes abound in movies and literature about the sense of style and beauty of French women. The bestseller "French Women Don't Get Fat" is a testament to that global fascination.

French professor Anne Deneys-Tunney, at New York University, says that she finds the US, where she has spent the last 20 years, to be a more egalitarian society for gender relations. American women have certain protections such as clear sexual harassment policies that are strictly enforced, yet it comes at a social cost, including a cultural tone that many French would find distasteful and too politically correct. The French want legal equality that doesn't come bound up in the inability to compliment women at work.

"Women are freer here, but on the other hand, it has destroyed a certain charm, an innocence and lightness of life," she says.

But that freedom can, at its worst, have a social cost. In July in the wake of the Strauss-Kahn case, for example, the country's female housing minister, Cécile Duflot, was subject to shouts and wolf whistles from the right-wing opposition as she prepared to address the national Parliament in a flowery but professional dress. The speaker of the chamber had to ask the male representatives to stop hooting at her.

Yet Ms. Duflot didn't shy away from responding. As she began her address to the chamber amid taunting from the opposition, she said, "Ladies and gentlemen representatives, but mostly gentlemen, apparently."

Strauss-Kahn affair a turning point

These scenarios are not unheard of. Women in France have less access to justice when it comes to sexual harassment. According to the French Ministry of Justice, about 1,000 complaints for sexual harassment are filed every year, but only a few dozen lead to sentencing.

And overall, the World Economic Forum's index puts France at 57 of 135 countries in terms of gender equality, falling in ranking from the year before. It sits well behind the Scandinavian countries, all in the Top 10, as well as behind Germany, Ireland, Spain, and the US.

Yet the fallout from the Strauss-Kahn case, while a nadir, has also been a turning point. In August, the country passed a new sexual harassment law that raises fines to €30,000 (nearly $40,000, double the previous fine) and expands the definition of what constitutes harassment. Before, it was limited to an act "with the goal of obtaining favors of sexual nature."

Today, harassment is defined as "imposing on somebody, in a repeated way, words or behaviors with a sexual connotation that either undermine one's dignity because of their degrading or humiliating nature, or create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive situation."

In one case that Ms. Baldeck's group represented, a female employee accused a male colleague of repeated sexual harassment, including an attempt to tuck a pencil between her buttocks. The judge in the case, in 2008, ruled against her. "Even if the words, actions, and gesture of [the defendant] could be judged as inadmissible, crude, rude, seen as obscene, they do not constitute moral or sexual harassment," the presiding judge wrote. Baldeck won on appeal, but says that she'd never have lost in the first place in today's environment. In fact, she says the number of cases they deal with in any given year – 400 – is up from the average of 300 before the Strauss-Kahn case forced sexual harassment into the public consciousness.

Mr. Hollande, in addition to introducing gender parity in his cabinet, has also reopened a women's rights ministry – after it was shuttered for almost 30 years – and by sending his ministers to sexism-education class, he has underlined his commitment to equality, his administration says.

"It is simply to take some time to think about inequalities between men and women, their origins, the reason that it is sometimes difficult to change mentalities and thus behaviors," writes Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the minister for women's rights, in an e-mail. "It is about giving them the keys, the tools, for politicians to integrate women's rights as an automatic extension of their political work."

'La Barbe' strikes a feminist blow with wit

But feminist groups say there is far more to be done. One group called La Barbe – meaning "The Beard" in English but also a pun as an old French expression that means "bummer" – was founded in 2008 after a French female candidate from a mainstream party was fielded for the 2007 presidential election, leading to a barrage of public chauvinism. "We want to fight men's monopoly in power places," says Clémentine Pirlot, a gender studies student and active member of the group.

While La Barbe's intentions are very serious, it carries out its activism with a dose of humor and sarcasm. In November, Ms. Pirlot attended an economic conference with a group of women, where 14 speakers were scheduled to talk and all 14 were men. As is La Barbe's routine, about 20 minutes into the conference, Pirlot stood up and put on a homemade beard – "always with dignity," she says – and read out sarcastic remarks like, "Congratulations! There are no women here."

Pirlot carries a beard or two in her purse always. "You never know when you'll need it," she says. Often the bearded women are treated with respect, but at times their targets are hostile, even as they become a more common fixture on the Parisian landscape. One waiter at a cafe in downtown Paris sees Pirlot with her beard on and says, "Yeah, La Barbe!"

Baldeck says that these days in Paris one can attend a feminist event any day of the week and that the movement has been renewed by thousands of young women.

At Osez le Féminisme, the group has grown in three years to 1,500 members with 11 committees around the country, taking on everything from sex education to abortion to wage equality. Ms. Mailfert measures success in the reaction her job description generates.

"I think one of our main achievements," she says, "is that it is now not that taboo to say you are a feminist."

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