Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

French women fight sexist abuse

A GROUP of prominent French women - and some men - calling themselves the "guard bitches" vowed yesterday to expose and fight the growing tendency towards the sexist abuse of powerful women in France.

The announcement follows a childishly sexist attack in a pamphlet by a trades union on Laure Adler, head of France Culture, the French equivalent of Radio Three.

Ms Adler, who from this month has cut back the station's fiction output, was described by the trade unionists as "another Imelda Marcos" collecting shoes to "trample fiction".

The pamphlet, issued by the Radio-France branch of the trade union Force Ouvriere, warned her to be "careful not to get her high-heels caught" in her own "programme grid".

Although fatuous in itself, the incident fits a pattern of public abuse of women who have succeeded in reaching high-profile and powerful positions in France. The environment minister and Green leader, Dominique Voynet, is a frequent target for such abuse.

When she visited the annual farm show in Paris in March, she was booed and whistled by farmers and called a "pute" (whore) and "salope" (bitch). One farmer bellowed in her ear that he would like to see her "stripped to her knickers, like you want to pluck us".

It was this incident that persuaded a small group of succesful women to form a pressure group to fight sexism in French public life. Since the attack on Laure Adler, the organisation has expanded and given itself an ironic name - the "Chiennes de garde" (guard bitches). It now claims 627 members, including 48 men, many of them well-known names from the worlds of politics, writing and academia.

In a manifesto published yesterday in the newspaper, Liberation, the group said it would fight back publicly against all similar cases in the future.

"Any woman who puts herself forward, who speaks out, who becomes well- known, risks being called a whore. If she succeeds, she is suspected of having slept around. Any visible woman is judged on her appearance and labelled as a `mum', a `maid of all works', a `lesbian', a `tart'. That's enough! We, the guard bitches, are baring our fangs."

Among the signatories were the Gaullist politician Roselyne Bachelot, the Socialist writer and politician Yvette Roudy and the writer Florence Montreynaud. Male signatories included the writers Regis Debray and Pascal Bruckner.

The group warned that it would respond to any "public, sexist insults" against succesful women by drawing attention to the attacks in the media and by "highly visible demonstrations".

A survey published last week found that women were still having great difficulty in reaching the top in French business and public life. Only 7 per cent of the top executives of France's 5,000 leading companies are women.

But in recent years, women have begun to break through into the top level of French politics. Lionel Jospin's government has more women in important ministerial positions - labour, environment, justice, education and culture - than any of its predecessors.

Male attitudes, on both sides of the right-left political divide, have yet to catch up. The farmers who abused Ms Voynet were cereal growers, who traditionally support right-wing parties. But the pamphlet insulting Ms Adler was written by the radio broadcasting branch of what is a non- aligned but generally left-wing union.

The union has apologised in a letter to Ms Adler, who is also a well- respected writer and biographer. She has threatened to take legal action unless the letter is published in full in the French press.