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-Ccile 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 Fminisme 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.
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 Franois 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."
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 crches, are
subsidized by the state. If mothers can't find places in the state-
run crches, 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
Hlne Privier, 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. …