The Guardian - France’s women’s minister in focus as spotlight shines on gender politics

François Hollande’s cabinet contains record number of women but feminist groups say few get roles of substance

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

France’s new minister for women’s rights has promised to rush through a new sexual harassment law, as feminists warned they would stay vigilant over equal rights issues despite the record number of women in the new cabinet.

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the first French women’s rights minister since the 1980s, moved fast to calm outrage among women’s groups in France after the country’s sexual harassment law was repealed this month, meaning that all ongoing cases not yet ruled on in court would be thrown out.
The law was scrapped by France’s constitutional council after a complaint that it was too "broad" by a former deputy mayor in the southern Rhone region who had been sentenced to three months in prison and a €5,000 (£4,020) fine for sexually harassing three employees. Vallaud-Belkacemn said the "void" left after the law’s repeal was unacceptable and new legislation would be passed before the summer. She also said France had "a lot of catching up to do" and had slipped down all international rankings on equal rights.
After the New York arrest of the one-time Socialist presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn over the alleged attempted rape of a New York hotel worker last year, there has been an outpouring against sexism, harassment and sex-discrimination in France, including senior women politicians complaining they no longer felt comfortable wearing a skirt in parliament.
Feminist campaign groups are extremely active and visible, recently criticising the Cannes Film festival for not featuring a single woman director in the current competition lineup . Women MPs made up 18.5% of the last French parliament, compared to 21% in the UK, or 46% in Sweden. In French boardrooms, only 15% of executives in large French companies are women despite a new law setting a quota for 40% by 2017.
It was in this context that Hollande this week appointed a government containing equal numbers of women and men for the first time in France - a country that only gave women the vote in 1945.
It is not a European first – the Spanish Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had equal numbers of men and women in his first cabinet in 2004, including the seven-months pregnant defence minister Carmen Chacón, and more women then men in his second. But France’s new cabinet is well above the European average of 26% women and higher than the UK, which has five women out of a 23-strong cabinet.
But French feminists have warned that quantity is not the same as quality. Of the most senior government posts, only one, the justice ministry, has gone to a woman, Christiane Taubira, an MP from French Guiana. Other women hold crucial posts in the government’s efforts to redress an economically struggling France, including Marisol Touraine, minister for social affairs and health, and Nicole Bricq, minister for ecology, but activists complain that women are still over represented in junior portfolios seen as "feminine" topics, such as family, disibilities or the elderly.
Some also bristled at the picture of Hollande and his prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, posing with all the women’s ministers, saying it proved that women in cabinet were still being singled out as extraordinary.
Julia Mouzon of La Barbe (The Beard), the feminist direct action group, said : "Clearly we’re happy there’s gender parity in government. We salute the appointment of a women’s rights minister, who is also government spokeswoman, which proves the women’s post is a role taken seriously.
"But while there’s progress, our work continues. We’re very vigilant. Of eight people in Hollande’s closest guard in his Elysée office, only one is a woman. We’re closely watching any future government reshuffles and women’s place among technocrats and advisors is important too.
"Quantity in the cabinet is not the same as quality, often we’ve seen the less prominent posts, such as family or disibilities go to women, while big jobs like economy and defence are shared among men."
Beatrice Gamba from the feminist group Mix-Cité said she approved the equal numbers in cabinet but regretted that issues like family and health tended to be seen as traditionally "feminine" portfolios.
"It’s great to have a minister for women’s rights, but we would have preferred a ministry of equality for men and women, which included issues of diversity, sexism and homophobia. But we’ll judge the ministry on its action."

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