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.

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Field of broken dreams: Andy Bell visits Passchendaele
news5 News's Andy Bell visited the killing fields of the Great War, and his ancestor - known only from his compelling war diary - came to life
Travel
travel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In my grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel