(The following is a post by Erika Hope Spencer, reference specialist, European Division.)
July 14th (Le Quatorze Juillet) marks France’s National Holiday (La Fête Nationale), when the 1789 battle cry “Freedom, Equality, Fraternity!” (Liberté, égalité, fraternité) was enshrined in the French national tradition. Marianne, the visual symbol of the French Republic (la République) has been depicted in a number of ways since the French Revolution. She has been rendered as demure and sweet, or bold and commanding, depending on the desired impact. But does this motto ring true for contemporary French women? Leaders in France are turning a more critical eye to what equality means in 2019.
As French women have entered the political arena in recent years, the aim of making freedom, equality, and fraternity universally applicable has become a central focus in French politics. The current French President Emmanuel Macron’s successful election campaign ran on a platform promising to commit to gender equality. In 2017, Macron created the Secretariat of Equality between Women and Men, headed by Marlène Schiappa, the author of many books, including “Le deuxième sexe de la démocratie” (The second sex of democracy. Éditions de l’Aube, 2018).
Among other measures to protect women, such as laws against street harassment, feminist activists and politicians have focused on the concept of parity (parité) that is, increasing women’s representation in government, and including a law requiring that half the political candidates of any given party must be women. Despite this law, in the almost 20 years since it was passed, few parties have achieved this level of representation. Notably, Macron’s 2017 campaign was one of the few to meet this standard.
This lag can perhaps be attributed to the French approach to feminism, which has prided itself as being less single-minded than American feminism. American women gained the right to vote earlier, and generally have more representation in local and national politics, while French women are more divided over the explicit goals of gender equality. One of the most glaring differences can be seen in public reactions to the French equivalent of the Anglo-American #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, called #BalanceTonPorc (“Expose your pig”). While the American movement saw nearly complete support from women, the French movement faced considerable pushback from some women who feared that it created a narrative of victimhood among women and criminalized men’s freedom to “importuner” that is, bother or flirt with women.
It is worth noting that many of the detractors of that movement, including the famous actress Catherine Deneuve, were over the age of 50, and that younger French women were more inclined to support it. Perhaps emboldened by greater discussion in the media and high-profile women’s rights activists, feminists in France are beginning to grapple with thornier nuances within the feminist movement itself—most notably to what extent women’s rights are entwined with the intersectional issues of racism, poverty, LGBTQ+ rights, and other social inequalities. For example, well-known British journalist, podcast host, and activist Reni Eddo-Lodge was recently interviewed by French journalist and podcast host Lauren Bastide about her book “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” (London: Bloomsbury Circus, 2017). Eddo-Lodge’s book, translated into French last year, takes on structural racism and candidly articulates the exasperation that women of color often feel in the feminist movement. If “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” has historically excluded women, many feel it has especially left behind French women of color. Many communities increasingly feel that inclusion and representation of people of color have too often been glossed over in France with a type of willful obliviousness.
The French outlook, similar to the “color blind” sentiment in America, harkens back to the notion that all French are citizens, thus there is no need for ethnic distinctions. In France for example, there are no ethnic identifiers collected with the national census. French national identity is the first (if not only) identity.
After the French men’s soccer team won the 2018 World Cup, they were enthusiastically celebrated in France, but little mention was made of the fact that many of the prominent players were of African descent. The fact was not lost on political commentator Trevor Noah, who joked about an African victory. Gérard Araud, French Ambassador to the U.S. at the time, wrote a letter to Noah stating, “This, even in jest, legitimizes the ideology which claims whiteness as the only definition of being French. Nothing could be less true….” Araud was proud to embrace these players within the nationality of their current home, but Noah, who is South African, responded to the world, “Why can’t they be both?”
Another controversial debate centers on the French ban on head coverings such as the burqa. This recently provoked renewed protests by French Muslim women who defied the ban by swimming in “burkinis”. “Operation Burkini” was led by the Citizen Alliance of Grenoble (Alliance Citoyenne). The leaders cite inspiration from American civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, and feel that the French ban is an assault on their civil liberties as French citizens. While many French feminists support the protest, others feel the head coverings are a vestige of religious traditions created and enforced by men, and run counter to women’s rights. Still others feel that the religious origin of the head coverings go against France’s secular society. Drawing lines and establishing laws around these issues of religion and culture elicit strong opinions from all sides. As international dialogs become more public and commonplace, conversations around feminism present both challenges and opportunities, in terms of understanding cultural differences and how they redefine the feminist movement.
France will host the G7 (Group of Seven, an informal partnership of industrialized democracies) summit this August, in the elegant coastal town of Biarritz. In connection with the conference, President Macron has declared gender equality a global cause, “l’égalité femmes-hommes une grande cause mondiale.” Macron has brought new energy to the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council (GEAC), a group of 30 feminist activists, politicians, and aid workers selected from all corners of the world to advise the G7 ministers on the most pressing feminist issues. To this end, the Council has drafted a “Declaration on Gender Equality” that the ministers are expected to sign in August.
The “Declaration on Gender Equality” lays out 28 well-defined and detailed objectives that include urgent issues such as combating violence against women, fostering women’s economic empowerment, and supporting access to education. The points enumerated in the declaration urge the international delegation to consider women’s rights around the globe. France’s revival of the Council during its G7 presidency is an important step toward renewing its commitment to ensure “liberté, égalité, et fraternité” for all. Actor and activist Emma Watson, a member of the Gender Equality Advisory Council and a UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador, spoke prophetically and optimistically on these issues in 2016 stating, “We, the entire spectrum of the feminist movement, are building an unstoppable current, for which we need ripples of hope from every age, race, ability, walk of life, every human experience.” (One Young World Summit, Ottawa, Canada, 2016). Because the opinions of high-profile personalities reach a greater international audience, differing views on gender equality and national identity are more readily exchanged. Although these opinions may clash, it is vital to examine the experiences of all individuals in order to address long-entrenched inequities.
This summer France will lead the G7 in promoting gender equality worldwide, while also playing host to the Women’s World Cup, known for empowering and inspiring female athletes across all nationalities. The United States is also celebrating strong women this summer. Feminist icon Megan Rapinoe and up-and-coming soccer star Rose Lavelle scored the game-winning goals, to bring about the resounding victory of the U.S. Women’s Soccer team. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted American women the vote. The Library of Congress has staged the exhibit “Shall Not Be Denied,” consisting of photographs, pamphlets, and illustrations from the Library’s collections that highlight the women’s rights movement, as well as educate the public about the long road women have traveled and the work that continues today. Clearly, that work must take into account the diverse experiences of our increasingly interconnected world.