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Whatever happened to French feminism?

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Summary of story from Guardian, March 25, 2011

Guardian journalist Zoe Williams does an interesting deconstruction job today on the current state of French feminism, starting with some contradictory stereotypes.

On the one hand, she points out that they have titanic feminist theorists, from Simone de Beauvoir via Helene Cixious to Virginie Despentes, a tranche of thinkers so heavyweight that the rest of Europe couldn’t match it if we pooled all our feminists.

On the other hand, the mainstream culture looks quite sexist. 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”).

But, she says, this dichotomy is impossible. Either the feminist intellectuals had no impact, or the sexism is a myth.

Elsa Dorlin, associate professor at the Sorbonne, currently a visiting professor in California, dispatches the first quantity pretty swiftly.

“French feminism is a kind of American construction,” she says. “Figures like Helene Cixous are not really recognised in France. In civil society, there is a hugely anti-feminist mentality.”

The standard structural markers of inequality are all in place: the figure proffered for a pay gap is a modest 12%, but this is what is known as “pure discrimination”, the difference in wages between a man and a woman in exactly the same job, with the same qualifications.

When the Global Pay Gap survey came out at Davos, France came a shocking 46th, way behind comparable economies (Britain is 15th, Germany 13th), and behind less comparable ones (Kazakhstan scored higher).

Female representation in politics is appalling, due to very inflexible rules about the pool from which the political class is drawn – they all come from a highly competitive set of graduate schools Les Grandes Ecoles (apart from Nicolas Sarkozy).

When there is a high-profile female face in politics, it is not because of equality but because of heritage. Take Martine Aubry (daughter of Jacques Delors), and the National Front, led by Marine Le Pen (daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen).

It is against this backdrop – conservatism and rigidity, rather than an all-out war between the sexes – that a bitter struggle has developed which started with a schism between feminists but extends far beyond.

In 2002 it was made illegal to “passively solicit”. Mainstream feminists supported the law, as prostitution constituted violence against women it obviously should be outlawed.

Activists countered that this denied prostitutes even the patchy safety of a busy street.

But underneath the practical injustice, there was a more pressing misogyny. Nellie, a member of the group Les Tumultueuses (she declines to give her surname in case it damages her position as a school teacher), explains: “How do you recognise someone who is ‘passively soliciting’?

“By definition, she isn’t doing anything. So you know her because her skirt is too short, or she is wearing fishnets, or she has too much make-up on.

“When you’re not wearing enough clothing, you’re a prostitute. When you’re wearing too much, you’re a Muslim. That’s where we end up, if we judge people on how they dress.”

Soon enough, that is where the system ended up: in 2004 the ban on the veil came up, on the same grounds, that it represented a violence against women.

In April, a new ban on the niqab, passed last September (see WVoN story), will come into force.

Would this have happened in a country where it was less routine, less state-sponsored, to judge a woman on her appearance?

Williams thinks not, but as she says, it’s hard to prove.

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