'La petite difference' becomes more petite

Yvette Roudy, France's minister for women's rights, is asking a pointed question these days: Why should she be called ''madame le ministre,'' and not ''madame la ministre''?

The answer is simple, good grammarians at the august Academie Francaise say. ''Ministre'' is a masculine, not feminine, noun. But with six female members in President Francois Mitterrand's new government, an angry Mrs. Roudy argues that such rules reflect lingering male chauvinism - and she has formed a committee to cleanse the French language of such sexism.

Feminism arrived late in France, and more than just linguistically, this country continues to value ''la petite difference.'' Just as Geraldine Ferraro's nomination as the Democratic Party's vice-presidential candidate in this fall's American elections is a powerful symbol, however, the presence of so many important women in the French government and Roudy's persistent questioning show that the position of French women is changing profoundly, if sometimes slowly and unevenly.

''Twenty years ago, you wouldn't have seen a woman plumber or minister,'' says Yvette Lochey of the women's rights ministry. ''Now it's becoming normal.''

Indeed, 20 years ago, French females remained trapped by traditional Roman Catholic codes and Latin machismo. Women stayed home. Even the law viewed women as second-class citizens. Under France's old matrimonial act, which was repealed only in 1964, when two people married they legally became one person - and that one person was the husband. A wife needed her husband's permission to apply for a passport or open a bank account. All joint property belonged to the husband.

Other basic reforms had to wait until Valery Giscard d'Estaing came to power in 1974. During the first two years of his administration, a flood of legislation was passed, including the legalization of abortion, the institution of more equitable divorce procedures, and granting of 16 weeks of paid maternity leave.

Politically, too, the Giscard administration proved a watershed. Women had been given the right to vote just after World War II, but the number of women representatives in the National Assembly fell from 30 to 10 between 1945 and 1977. Mr. Giscard broke tradition by appointing five women to his Cabinet.

The reforms have buried old social taboos. No longer is a girl from a good family expected to stay home: She gets a job. According to Yvette Lochey, 40 percent of French women now work, a higher percentage than in either Britain or West Germany. Moreover, Ms. Lochey reports that the proportion of female students at universities has risen from 25 percent in 1930 to nearly 50 percent today. Nearly 40 percent of young doctors are women.

Home life has also changed. Older French men may still consider washing dishes or sharing key financial decisions a threat to their virility and assume it is their masculine prerogative to fool around. But young French women no longer accept this one-sided relationship. They demand more equality, the same sexual freedom or fidelity, shared decisionmaking, and yes, even some help with the dishes.

''The young couples are different,'' says Marie-France Cavallo of the Union for French Women. ''There's more commitment and couples work together. Men even help out with housework.''

This new commitment, however, has not translated into a surge of aggressive tirades against ''male tyranny.'' Emancipated French women fight for equal rights and opportunities - and, as one popular slogan puts it, ''the right to be different.''

In this view, feminism must not sacrifice femininity. French feminists prize being chic, seductive, sexy. They say American working women are too assertive, and they believe better results can be obtained by drawing on their womanly wiles. Publicly successful French women are rarely bossy and masculine. Instead, like Simone Weil, the former president of the European Parliament, and Francine Gomez, president of the Waterman Pen Company, they dress demurely and speak softly.

''Unlike in the US, we want to keep our feminine personality,'' says Ginou Richard of F magazine, a women's publication similar to America's Working Woman. ''It is our greatest weapon.''

Yvette Roudy's present actions challenge the premise of this ''sexy'' feminism. In her view, it permits old attitudes to persist, perpetuating second-class citizenship for French women.

Female managers still earn only two-thirds as much as their male counterparts , according to ministry statistics. And much more than in the US, French advertising makes common use of cooing, submissive, Playboy-like nudes in public advertising - a situation Roudy is trying to change by drawing up an antisexism bill.

In this context, the French language also becomes a natural target. The minister notes that feminine job descriptions refer mainly to nurses, stewardesses, cooks, and other such stereotypically feminine professions. Highly esteemed titles of power such as ''president'' and ''ministre'' are exclusively male.

''It's not innocent when we can be 'la secretaire' but only 'le ministre,' '' says Benoite Groult, noted feminist and chairwoman of Roudy's committee.

Mrs. Groult has feminized some 350 names, and says technically there is no problem with the term ''la ministre.'' She fears social pressures will keep French sexist.

''Many men still laugh at the problem,'' she says. ''And even some women ministers are against us. They say it's more prestigious to be addressed 'madame le ministre.' ''

In the end, the linguistic drive will probably succeed only if women in power alter the general image of females. Mr. Mitterrand seems determined to do just this.

Not only has he included a record six women in his latest government, he has given them important portfolios in economics, defense, social security, and the environment. Before, female ministers tended to be relegated to what a political commentator has called ''the female ghetto'' - posts covering health, family, and education.

The changes are striking. For example, Georgina Dufoix first entered the government in 1981 as secretary of state for the family. In July, she received a big promotion, being named minister for social affairs and national solidarity. She is in charge of by far the biggest budget in the government.

Similarly, Edwige Avice moved from junior minister of sports to the No. 2 position in the Defense Ministry, the first woman ever to hold a high post in the French defense establishment. And Edith Cresson's portfolio was expanded to include industrial redeployment as well as foreign trade, making her responsible for two of the government's most vital political priorities. The new power given these women has created great hopes.

''Soon we'll have a woman prime minister or president, of course,'' says F magazine's Ginou Richard. ''It's logical.''

But a large problem remains. How would one address her, ''madame le president'' or ''madame la presidente''?

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