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Eye on France: A day to celebrate

Feminist pioneer, Simone de Beauvoir, 1908-1986.
Feminist pioneer, Simone de Beauvoir, 1908-1986.
4 min

Like media in many parts of the civilised world, the French papers have given broad prominence to International Women's Day.


Le Monde’s main story laments the slow growth of the number of women in the French armed forces. The defence minister, Florence Parly, is to launch an initiative today to encourage more girls to sign up.

The centrist paper also re-publishes a 1978 interview with Simone de Beauvoir is which she admits that she underestimated the time it would take for the revolution sparked, in part, by her book The Second Sex, to have an impact in the real world.

Right-wing Le Figaro wonders if neo-feminism is not a danger for traditional feminism.

Left-leaning Libération looks at the place of women in French media, with a headline calling for a greater effort. They aren’t joking. A second study has confirmed that women get to speak only one third of the time on French radio and TV.

Even business paper Les Echos, which normally limits its field of interest to neutral questions such as cash, stocks, shares, profit and loss, marks the day with an exclusive on the pay gap between men and women in France.

A powerful pioneer admits she got it wrong

Let’s give the honours to Simone de Beauvoir.

She was 70-years-old in 1978 when Le Monde published a two-part interview with the feminist pioneer. She was still writing, still fighting for the cause of what she called “radical” feminism, still leading protests and public meetings. Her book The Second Sex, in which she first said “One is not born a woman, one becomes a woman,” was already thirty years old and a classic.

She continued to insist that masculinity and femininity were social constructs, reinforced by education, parental choices and language, to mention just three. But she admits that she thought gender equality would come about more quickly. And she was sure that it would come through economic independence.

In 1978, even Simone de Beauvoir had to admit that great women bosses, or surgeons, or journalists would still have to do the shopping, rush home, clean the house and get the dinner ready. And she was sure that women were increasingly the physical victims of male aggression, even if the media at the time were silent on the matter. She linked the increased level of male violence to the various moves for female emancipation.

Were things getting any better back then?

While the position of women had been improved by the easy availability of contraception, De Beauvoir remained skeptical about the overall situation. In terms of work, economic power and career opportunities, women remained very much the second sex.

Simone de Beauvoir would obviously not be happy to learn that, four decades further down the road, her analysis remains broadly valid.  

A poll published in today’s financial paper Les Echos shows that 85 percent of the French believe there is a salary difference between men and women, 79 percent feel men get promoted higher and more easily, and 73 percent think men have easier access to a wider range of jobs.

De Beauvoir might, however, have been heartened to learn that the domestic gap appears to have narrowed slightly. Seventy-seven percent of the Les Echos sample believe in sharing household tasks, even if men are less available for routine administrative tasks or for the education of children.

Surprise, surprise! Men are more likely than women to believe that the position of women has improved. That’s a sad fact that would hardly have surprised Madame de Beauvoir. She might even have written a book about it.

Wage equality remains a long way off

Women worldwide have been asked to stop work at 15H40 this afternoon, to mark the fact that, because of the average salary difference of 26 percent, that’s the time every day that women start working for nothing, while their male colleagues continue to collect a salary until going-home time at six o’clock.

Perhaps more seriously, Le Figaro debates the dangers for feminism implicit in the movement known as neofeminism.

Let’s avoid too many generalisations, but neofeminism is predominantly north American in origin, and involves community effort rather than the struggle for women’s rights in general. But if you are not lesbian, black, a single-parent and living without papers, you might find the doors closed against you. Neofeminist groups have a reputation for being exclusive.

And also for being too forgiving of certain forms of degradation, like the obligation in some societies for women to dress in a special way.

Le Figaro quotes the Républicans party spokeswoman, Lydia Guirous, as saying the radicals within the movement represent the “suicide of feminism”.

They have, she says, wasted time and energy on useless battles like feminizing the French language. Their banner is one of permanent victimization; the enemy is all men.

Meanwhile, some women struggle alone for survival in male-dominated ghettos where they can barely be seen on the streets.

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