Gender Parity, Matrimoine and Historic Gender Struggles in France

As a long-time feminist with a history of advocacy on gender equality in the United States, I continue to be attracted to gender issues, with a particular focus on comparing the nature of gender activism in different settings.  In this commentary, I would like to address a series of very localized examples of a gender perspective in the French community of Grasse. It starts with some observations about gender balancing in the municipal elections and continues with reflections on a uniquely French look at “Matrimoine” in Grasse and on a broader overview of gender struggles featuring French feminists and others. 

One might have noticed that there was no mention of spouse or family in the separate commentary on the French municipal elections, with its focus on Grasse and Mayor Jerome Viaud. I honestly do not know who Mayor Viaud’s wife is. I know he has three children, but that is it; their names but not their ages did appear on some campaign-related sites, although not on any of the Mayor’s official sites or Facebook pages. So one of the obvious differences between American and French politics is the sharper separation of family and political life in French politics.

That said, it is not a complete separation. One does often see the French President Emmanuel Macron with his spouse at official functions of the more formal and representational variety (G7 and G20 summits, for example). And various French candidates for public office have crashed their political careers with private-life blunders. Dominique Strauss-Kahn comes to mind (the former head of the International Monetary Fund whose presidential campaign for the Socialist Party nomination fell apart in a sex scandal some years ago).

Most recently, a similar fiasco befell one of the candidates for mayor of Paris – in fact, the designated candidate of the newly formed pro-Macron LREM Party. He, too, was compelled to withdraw his candidacy on account of a sex scandal – albeit mostly because he had claimed to be such a good family man. That is to say, he was deviating from the French norm by invoking his family (à la politique Americaine) in the first place. The media uproar about this particular scandal was even described by many in France as yet another example of the “Americanization” of French politics.

I bring this up here because the French political system clearly has a very different set of contradictory views about things having to do with gender issues. This was especially pertinent to the kinds of gender issues that are typically featured in France and elsewhere this year on International Women’s Day (IWD), the 8th of March. I am also especially interested in bringing this up here because I actually missed the opportunity to investigate and comment on IWD activities in or around Grasse this year.  For one thing, there wasn’t much going on – no specific event as there had been last year or specific art exhibit as there had been the year before.  But it also seemed that the campaigning for municipal offices had diverted attention to other, non-gender-related concerns.

Nonetheless, I had found two local IWD-related offerings that I had put on my calendar to investigate and write about. One was something entitled “Matrimoine de Grasse”, a project of the local Lycée Amiral de Grasse that consisted of a two-hour presentation by the students of this school displaying research they had done on prominent women who had passed through Grasse. I know that an earlier student-sourced exhibit on the history of feminist advances in France had been well done a few years ago. So I had hoped to be similarly impressed with this one. But unfortunately, the coronovirus lock-down worked against me, and I had to forego both of the scheduled times for this presentation. One can hope that it was well done, but one does have to wonder about the title. “Matrimoine”, a variation of “Patrimoine”, is translated into English as the same word “heritage”. Presumably, the term implies a sort of matriarchal heritage or some such? But the promotional literature referred to the passing through or living in Grasse of the likes of Queen Victoria or Princess Pauline or Edith Piaf and various artists who sought refuge from the Nazis in Grasse. That could not have lasted long! Oh dear.

Similarly, the other offering, entitled “Luttes des Femmes, Progrès pour Tous” featured 20 posters depicting the progress towards rights for all from the struggle of various women leaders. But that, too, was a non-starter when we were all called upon to engage in “social distancing” and avoid large crowds or public gatherings. And now, both the local association hall and the shop windows throughout the old town where these posters were on display have also been closed in the latest lock-down. But the promotional article in the March 2020 issue of the local magazine known as “Kiosque” features a list of historical landmarks (women getting the right to vote in 1945 or requiring gender parity in electoral lists in 2000) along with a reference to Simone de Beauvoir’s publication of The Second Sex in 1949. On the whole, it looks very much like the student-sourced exhibit that I had seen from two years ago. But good enough. It was a very good exhibit.

That was about it for the immediate area. Elsewhere in France, though, including in Paris, there were several International Women’s Day demonstrations. In Paris, the media reported that the priorities of the women’s rights groups that were behind the demonstrations were first and foremost to protest against pension reform in France, along with calling for equality in domestic and other unpaid work, protesting against gender-based violence against women, and protesting against Roman Polanski’s having won the French version of the Academy Award’s Oscars known as the Césars in February for Best Director for the film “J’Accuse” (or in English, “An Officer and a Spy”).  I can certainly agree with the protest on this last score, since I am really disturbed that the French film industry voted to give him this award. There were credible alternatives to circumvent the preposterous idea of rewarding someone with such a despicable reputation for exploiting under-age women as Polanski has, regardless of the quality of the film.

Anyway, I did find it disappointing that the opposition to pension reforms among French unions had spilled over into questionable strategy of opposition to the supposed loss of the favorable treatment of women in the existing pension system – e.g. full  benefits at a younger retirement age.  The whole matter is rather moot for now since the government suspended all legislative reform initiatives, including pension reform, during the coronavirus crisis. But the point remains: laws should be gender-neutral, both literally and in their impact. They should not “protect” women with special privileges. For example, family responsibilities should be equally shared, and it should not be presumed that it’s OK that women still have most of these family responsibilities.

To return, though, to the municipal setting, one should take note of the provision for gender parity in those electoral lists. The French did enact a law requiring gender parity in electoral lists some twenty years ago. So it should come as no surprise that the municipal lists that we saw for the local elections this year all had 50-50 gender balance to them. And yet, very few women are actually mayors. Wikipedia lists 69 of them for France from the last round (from 2014, not 2020), out of a total of some 37,000 communes that supposedly have mayors.  Another source does show that 11 of the 46 largest municipalities in France did elect women as mayors in 2020.  So even with gender parity on the municipal lists, the top slot is still not at parity.


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