France’s Power Women

Last month, L’Express did a cover story on France’s most powerful women. Based on a recent publication titled “Femmes en Tête” (Flammarion, 534 pages, 139 F), the weekly news magazine’s article focuses on “100 women who keep France on the move,” (“100 femmes qui font bouger la France.”)

Celebrating the achievements of French women in a wide range of fields that were once the unique preserve of men, its authors, Evelyne Pisier and Françoise Barret-Ducrocq, point to gains made in recent years, particularly in terms of access to education and job possibilities.

They start by reminding us what women were up against. Rita Levi-Montalcini, who was born in 1909, remembers a game she used to play in the school playground. The girls wore smocks that buttoned up at the back, and they used to flick the buttons and recite “mother, nun, whore… mother, nun, whore,” like lovers pulling petals from a daisy. At the beginning of the century, girls didn’t need to spend too much time in career counseling – they weren’t exactly overwhelmed with choices. “If the game was still in fashion, schoolgirls would need an incredible number of buttons on their smocks” says Levi-Montalcini, who surprised her classmates by becoming a doctor and winning the Nobel prize for medicine.

Pisier and Barret-Ducrocq tell their story of emancipation through the portraits of 100 women. The subjects are not all famous or powerful, but they are all “emblematic.” And many are pioneers in their field, hacking a new path through the career jungle. “By dint of hearing so many women say they were ‘the first’ to have occupied this or that exceptional post,” they write, “we wanted to meet a few and ask them to tell us their personal adventure.”

The list of firsts is certainly impressive. The Greek scholar Jacqueline de Romilly was the first woman to be given a chair in the College de France, and the second elected to the Académie francaise (after Marguerite Yourcenar, who died in 1987). Claudie André-Deshays was the first French women in space (though 30 non-French women got there before her). Françoise Cachin was the first curator of the Musée d’Orsay, and is now director of the Musées de France. Isabelle Bouillot was the first female budget director in the Finance Ministry and on it goes.

“To think that we didn’t have the right to vote when I was born,” exclaims the cardiac surgeon Francine Leca, the first woman to pass the prestigious aggrégation exam in medicine. She is 59; French women didn’t get the vote until 1945, 27 years after their sisters across the Channel, and 25 after women in the US.

Many of the women interviewed tell tales of everyday misogyny at work. Anne Réocreux, a 34-year-old engineer, remembers a young colleague, male and cocksure, coming into her office and asking her to announce his arrival to Mr. Réocreux. “To him, I could only be a secretary… I put him in his place.” But not too brutally; she is of the new generation. “Women bosses of 40 or 50 often play at being macho: they are bigmouths who impose their opinions on others. Like men.” She prefers to prove that a woman can exercise her authority by competence alone. Joëlle Bourgois remembers a bad-tempered accountant who told her, “No woman is going to give me orders.” “I happen to be the ambassador,” Bourgois replied. “So get out, or behave properly.” The first woman in the diplomatic corps and now France’s ambassador in the disarmament talks in Geneva, her bright suits and joviality were a shock to her colleagues.

Surprisingly, many of the women talk about how important their fathers were in encouraging their ambitions. Col. Colette Giacometti, the first woman admitted to the French army’s Aerial Warfare School, says it was her father, who supported her when she first talked of joining the army; her mother was “against war” and wanted her to do something more traditional. The best known woman in the book, a real star in France, is the journalist Anne Sinclair. The first time she was on the radio, her father, an industrialist in the cosmetic industry, invented a meeting every day between 5:00 and 5:05pm and locked himself in his office to listen.

Another journalist, Christine Ockrent, began her career working for CBS in Britain and the US, where she produced “Sixty Minutes.” “I developed very bad habits,” she explains. “I came back with the idea that I was free to work where I wanted. That cost me a lot in France, where we live in a society of clans in which networks are so important.”

For Pisier and Barret-Ducrocq, access to education “is the key to independence, liberty, and power.” Most of their chosen hundred got where they are by studying hard. The right to equal education was only acquired very recently – primary schools and lycées did not become coed until the 1960s, and those mythical grandes écoles, where so many of France’s ruling elite are primed for power, were only fully opened to women in the early 1980s.

Historically, French feminism is characterized by high ideals but a slow pace of real change. The Revolution was a double-edged sword. Its lofty pronouncements inspired Olympe de Gouges’ “Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizens,” but it also produced an all-male National Assembly. Under the ancien régime, women had wielded a certain power through noble birth; in the new meritocracy of the republic, all men were citizens, but women were just women. Liberty led the people, one breast bared, but “fraternité” did not extend to sisterhood.

In the corridors of power, men were terrified of what de Tocqueville called “the cauldron of immoderate democracy.” The Concordat of 1801 gave the Catholic church complete control over girls’ education, and the Code Napoléon of 1804 made wives legally subordinate to their husbands. It took a century and a half to roll back these laws; French women did not gain the legal right to work or open a bank account without their husbands’ consent until 1965, and only become the legal owners of their possessions in 1966.

More and more French women work – they now make up 44.5 percent of the workforce (roughly the same percentage as in Britain and North America), compared to 34% thirty years ago. French women enjoy better, cheaper childcare than Americans or Brits, aided by the fact that school begins at the tender age of three. But like women everywhere, they tend to have low-paying, precarious jobs, and still do most of the vacuuming and diaper changing. Often access to work reinforces inequality, by legitimizing “the double workday.”

We are still a long way from true equality of the sexes, what the authors call “the democratic ideal: to equal competence, an equal career, equal responsibility, equal power.” So are women catching up, or is the glass ceiling (yes, the French call it “le plafond de verre”) still intact? Should we agree with the rabid right-winger Charles Pasqua, who said that Edith Cresson’s failure “will discredit women for a long time”?

Remember Cresson? She became France’s first woman prime minister in 1991, and is best known to Anglos for her comment that 25 percent of English men were homosexual and “in some way a little maimed.” She told The Observer newspaper, “I remember from strolling about in London… the men in the streets don’t look at you!” “C’est pas normal!” Gaffes like this made her the least popular prime minister in history (a record soon beaten by Alain Juppé), and she had to resign after only 11 months in office.

Pisier and Barret-Ducrocq don’t think that setbacks like this are permanent. It was more important that a symbolic barrier had been crossed. In one poll, 77% of French people said it was “very good” to have a woman prime minister. A president, well, that may take a little longer.

The present government, announced by Lionel Jospin in June, includes eight women ministers. One of them, Catherine Trautmann, Minister of Culture and Communication and interviewed in “Femmes en Tête,” is almost mystical with optimism. “In every level of society, the same ground swell is at work; women are moving inexorably towards the conquest of independence in every domain. A first generation has invented other conceptions of love and the family; we won’t go back.”

All these high-achieving women have one thing in common – they had to struggle, and make it up as they went along. They had no models to follow – with few exceptions, their mothers were housewives. Their daughters will take it for granted that women have fulfilling careers. “They will be able to choose to be human beings, not women.”