Why Feminism Falls Flat in France

Article excerpt

This evening, on peak-time French television, a petite brunette of a certain age will spend the best part of an hour quizzing an only slightly larger blonde of a similar age about her life and loves. Both are professional women in their own right and both have highly placed politician husbands who lean to the left of the political spectrum. But there the similarities end.

The brunette is Anne Sinclair, doyenne of France's political interviewers, who is married to one of France's senior Socialist politicians, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The blonde is a top US lawyer, Hillary Clinton - and we all know who she is married to. The programme will come direct from the White House as part of French television's coverage of tomorrow's Inauguration.

It is also likely to illustrate one of the more striking of the many cultural differences between France and the United States: the non-meeting of minds (female as well as male) about the role of women in general, and feminism in particular. Asked about the direction of the interview beforehand, a spokeswoman for the TF-1 channel said it would concentrate on Mrs Clinton's role as First Lady, her recent book (about the family), and her "pet" issues such as health reform and education. It would, she said, treat her first and foremost as the wife of the President, "in much the same way as a sporting or artistic celebrity", not as a political entity. Even if the White House stipulated that the interview should be personal rather than political, this emphasis is only what would be expected in France. Here, the activism and political involvement of women in the United States is an alien phenomenon, regarded - if at all - with a highly critical and mainly uncomprehending eye. The prevailing view was well illustrated recently as French journalists tackled the appearance in the US best-seller lists of The Rules, a guide to American women on snaring a husband. Paris Match printed choice extracts with an amazed commentary that any woman should need advice such as "Don't be the first to speak, it's the man who pursues the woman" or "Space out your meetings - if he wants you around seven days a week he's got to marry you." The subtext was that French women had never lost the subtle skill of husband-snaring and that for any woman to need instruction was a measure of how far - how very much too far - American-style "Women's Lib" had gone. A leading French commentator, Jacques Juilliard, returned to the theme after a visit to the US. He had long believed, he said in his column in the weekly Nouvel Observateur, that European, especially Latin, males had exaggerated the "horrors" of American-style feminism. But a short stay at a "chic" women's college in New England had disabused him: things were infinitely worse. "I can assure you," he told his readers, "that those poor young men who venture into enemy territory don't get very far." He made a particular point about how the girls dressed: "They do so much to disguise their secondary sexual characteristics that you would think you were in Mao's China rather than the middle of Massachusetts. …