Dominique Strauss-Kahn

Anti-sexism classes for chauvinist French ministers

French PM decides it's time to drag his team into 21st century after a string of oafish outbursts

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2012, 3:26am

First there was Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who allegedly referred to women as "material", then catcalls in the French parliament just because a female minister wore a floral dress.

But when the agriculture minister - in an interview last month about promoting gender equality - suggested women couldn't get their heads around technical jobs, that was too much.

The prime minister of France - a country that produced feminist icons such as Joan of Arc and Simone de Beauvoir - has decided that his ministers need to go back to school for anti-sexism classes.

On Jean-Marc Ayrault's orders, the Equality Ministry has set up a series of 45-minute gender equality "sensitisation sessions", during which ministers are being trained to identify sexism in daily life and taught how to avoid sexist stereotypes in political communication.

It was a full class, with all 38 ministers signed up or in the process of registering. In the interest of gender equality, the female ministers are going, too.

The goal, said organiser Caroline de Haas, is that ministers take time to think about sexism. "If you're not vigilant, de facto inequalities are created," she said.

De Haas said 80 per cent of politicians interviewed on French TV and radio broadcasts were men. She said she wanted to fight against the "illusion" that France "has almost achieved equality" between men and women. France is now trailing in an unimpressive 48th place on the Global Gender Gap equality list.

Last month, in an interview with L'Express magazine, Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll caused controversy by saying: "I've tried to promote women as much as possible, even though some of our dossiers are very technical."

Though Le Foll said his words were taken out of context - given that the interview was on the subject of gender equality - they nevertheless caused outrage and went viral on Twitter.

As far as the public is concerned, some ministers need instruction.

"I'm not proud, but the lessons are good," said Nicolette Kost, 33, in central Paris. "After all, at such a high level in French government, non-sexist attitudes should just come naturally."

France sees itself as the cradle of human rights and is progressive on some fronts, but has lagged on gender equality.

Under prime minister Alain Juppe in 1995, no one blinked an eye when French media named his 12 female ministers patronisingly the "Jupettes".

In July, Housing Minister Cecile Duflot was the victim of hooting and catcalls in the National Assembly, all for wearing a blue and white flowered dress. The whistles did not cease for the entire time she spoke. The heckling didn't come from an unruly crowd, but from male legislators who later said they were merely showing their appreciation on a warm summer's day.

Former IMF chief and presidential hopeful Strauss-Kahn reinforced the stereotype and tarnished the image of French male MPs after he admitted conducting orgies and reportedly referred to women as "material" when planning for them.