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Women's Rights Activists Encouraged by New French President

  • Lisa Bryant

PARIS - 2012 may mark the year of woman's rights in France. Newly elected president Francois Hollande has ushered in the country's first gender-balanced cabinet. His partner, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, is the country's first unmarried "first lady." And earlier this year, the government scrapped the honorific "Mademoiselle" - or "Miss" - from its official documents in favor of the more equalizing "Madame." But are these changes merely symbolic?

The easy part of Olivia Cattan's day ends at lunchtime, when she leaves her work as a pre-school assistant and starts her other job as a journalist and founder of the feminist organization "Paroles de Femmes," or "Words of Women."

Cattan has advised France's new President, Francois Hollande, on women's issues and Mr. Hollande's cabinet includes an equal number of male and female ministers.

It also includes a new ministry of women's rights, headed by 34-year-old Najat Vallaud Belkacem.

Cattan says those are promising first steps.

"It's a fantastic gesture for Mr. Hollande. It's like a page has been turned. It's the first parity government in France. He's really turned a page in terms of French feminism," Cattan said.

France also has a new, unmarried "first partner," journalist Valerie Trierweiler, who accompanied Hollande on his first official visit to the United States.

"It [the partnership] shows that you don't have to get married to live with someone. We have the right to choose the kind of lives we want," Cattan said.

Women's issues have been in the spotlight in France for other reasons - notably for the sex-scandal allegations dogging former International Monetary Fund chief and French politician, Dominique Strauss Kahn.

Economics and minority rights professor Anne Boring says the Strauss-Kahn scandal has shaken the society.

"Now women are more willing to say what has happened to them or to denounce violence against women," Boring said.

On the streets of Paris, the French appear to be pleased with women's new assertion in political life.

Among them, 40-year-old businessman, Jean-Michel Bambois.

"It's good not to differentiate between women and men. What counts is their competency," he said.

Theater director Nadia Vonderheyden also praises recent changes, including the elimination of the term "Mademoiselle," or "Miss," from French government documents.

"Things are beginning to reflect, just a tiny bit, the reality in French society, which wasn't the case before," she said.

But Professor Boring says women must still fight to get ahead.

"France is a country where women are still discriminated against in the workplace and salaries of women [with] similar qualifications are much lower than the salaries of men," she said.

Rights activists like Olivia Cattan say they will be watching closely to make sure France's new government makes good on its promises of promoting women's equality.
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