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Women's Rights Looking up in France

  • Lisa Bryant

French President Francois Hollande gestures as he speaks to reporters upon his arrival for an EU summit, at the European Council building in Brussels, May 23, 2012.

French President Francois Hollande gestures as he speaks to reporters upon his arrival for an EU summit, at the European Council building in Brussels, May 23, 2012.

France may remember 2012 as the year of women's rights. Newly elected President Francois Hollande has ushered in the country's first gender-balanced cabinet. His partner, twice-divorced journalist Valerie Trierweiler, is the country's first unmarried "first lady." And earlier this year, the government scrapped the honorific "Mademoiselle" from its official documents in favor of the more equalizing "Madame." But are these changes just 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 advised President Francois Hollande on women's issues during his campaign.

As France's new leader, Hollande appears to be acting on her advice. His Cabinet includes an equal number of male and female ministers. It also includes a new ministry of women's rights, headed by Najat Vallaud Belkacem, 34, who is also the government's spokeswoman.

Cattan says Hollande's initial gestures are great. She says his parity government amounts to a new page for French feminism.

France also has a new, unmarried "first partner" - journalist Valerie Trierweiler, who was a key advisor during his campaign.

Cattan adds that the first couple shows that marriage is not a necessity. French women have the right to choose what lives they want to lead.

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

Economics and minority rights professor Anne Boring says the Strauss-Kahn scandals amount to a wakeup call.

"I do think the Strauss-Kahn affair has had quite a strong impact on the French society," said Borning. "Now women are more willing to say what has happened to them or to denounce violence against women."

On the streets of Paris, businessmen like Olivier Bambois, 40, appear pleased with women's new assertion in political life.

Bambois says it's good not to differentiate women and men in the workforce and in politics, what counts is their competency.

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

Now, Vonderheyden says, the government is beginning to reflect the reality of French society.

But professor Boring says French women still have a long way to go.

"France is a country where women are still discriminated [against] at the work place and salaries of the women at the same stage of qualification are much lower than the salaries of men," Boring added. "Women tend to slow down their careers much more than men do."

And she says only time will tell if Hollande's first steps to promote women's rights are effective.

"One of the guidelines is can he actually maintain parity within the government? The women who are in [ministerial] positions now - they have a huge responsibility - because they need to show that they are as able as men to do the job," Boring explained.

Cattan, too, says she will be watching closely to see if France's new president makes good on his promises to promote women's equality.