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Why feminism falls flat in France

As America's First Lady appears on French TV,
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. In my view, committing the sort of aggression they claim to feel threatened by would be not a sin, but a veritable act of heroism."

"Alas," he went on, "the main American nightmare is not Saddam Hussein, not Japanese commercial competition, nor even the ravages of cigarettes... but love." Caught between "the feminist party that wants to castrate him and the marriage party that wants to put him in a cage," he predicted, "the American male's chances of survival are slim."

The results of traditional Gallic attitudes, as expressed in Juilliard's hyperbole, however, are to be seen everywhere in French public life. Or rather not seen - because France has one of the lowest rates of female political participation of any European Union country. Women account for 6 per cent of all MPs (tying with Greece for last position in the EU) and there is only one woman mayor of a city of more than 100,000 inhabitants (Catherine Trautmann in Strasbourg).

The appointment by the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, of 12 women to the cabinet - made to fulfil one of President Jacques Chirac's election promises - was reversed in his first reshuffle, which only four of them survived. The "eviction" of the "Juppettes", as they were known, briefly sparked the distaff side of public opinion into protest, but not for long.

Even many women in France would argue, however, not only that quotas are inappropriate, but that women are "happy" with things as they are. Certainly, women enjoy a courtesy from men, even in big cities, that has long gone in much of northern Europe. There is a gentle and slightly amused flirtatiousness between the sexes that colours much social discourse and is not persistent or offensive, as it can be in more southern countries.

It is also true that the influence of women on public life in France is far greater than their numerical representation in politics would suggest. There are senior women in business, in the media, in the judiciary and in the police force. Women who do become prominent, however, often achieve at least their first break thanks to family connections: as wives, widows or daughters.

With forecasts that the 1998 parliamentary elections could be close and hints that the women's vote might make a difference, France's main political groupings, the Gaullists, the UDF and the Socialists, have started to talk about "quotas" of women candidates. The Socialist Party has already pledged to nominate women for half its constituencies. This has prompted less male protest than might be expected, largely because the Socialists hold so few seats.

A similar move by the governing Gaullist and UDF parties would be more costly to incumbent MPs. Even so, a report commissioned by the government and published last week suggests several ways in which quotas for women could, and should, be introduced. A 1982 proposal for quotas only in local elections fell at the last hurdle when it was ruled unconstitutional. This report, by a former Socialist MP, Gisele Halimi, speaks of "dysfunctional democracy" in France and says that the constitution might have to be amended in order to prevent the same thing happening again.

Like it or not, the "women's question" is moving up France's political agenda. In this respect, France might have been better informed if Hillary Clinton had been asking the questions tonight, rather than Anne Sinclair.