A feminist reading of the French presidential election

On Sunday, May 6th Francois Hollande, the candidate of the French Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party), was elected President of the French Republic. An article by Alexandra Topping entitled “Vive la Femme?” published on the 8th of May in the Guardian asks whether Hollande is “the first feminist president of France?” If I agree on the necessity of a feminist reading of the election, I think this article is problematic in many aspects, for a large part because of a lack of information on French politics (especially feminismwise). It is partly understandable (the journalist mainly repeats what mainstream media says) and partly problematic (the journalist mainly repeats what mainstream media says). Here are my 4 critical points on the article and the election, as a French feminist woman. All the translations are mine; all the italics are French. I apologise for the fact that most of my links are in French.

  1. Names matter

Yes, they do. And here we have quite a striking concentration of problematic titles and names:

  • The title of the article: Vive la femme? Maybe something got lost in translation here, but something certainly got gained in essentialism. Or maybe it is irony, but then it’s not clear. The French expression “la femme” (= the woman) in singular form is so often used by patriarchal media to refer to the patriarchal image of what an acceptable woman is that some feminists started playing with it. In particular, on the excellent Les Entrailles de Mademoiselle, they refer to Lafâme (a made-up word which in French sounds as “la femme”, “infâme” meaning infamous) as “a mythical entity that doesn’t exist”.
  • The link to the article on the front page of the Guardian: “the first feminist president of France?” If we are talking of the same election, a self-defined man has been elected to be head of state. And as such, I argue that he cannot be feminist. He could be supportive to feminists, feminism-friendly, or maybe even profeminist, but not feminist. And, as a man, running for presidency is not the first thing I would argue to be on the “profeminism – to do” list.
  • The name of Hollande’s party: the Socialist Party. Trying to tame capitalism is NOT socialism. On social and societal issues, this party might be more progressive than others, but it is not socialist.
  • The name of the feminist organisation which is referred to as “one of the country’s leading women’s organisations”: Ni Putes Ni Soumises. (= Neither Whores Nor Submissive). The article links to a letter that Francois Hollande wrote to this organisation during the presidential campaign in which he presents his programme as far as achieving equality between women and men is concerned. “Putes” is a gendered slur which can designate either a sex-worker or a woman whose sexual behaviour is not to please patriarchy. If “putes” can be reclaimed by sex-workers, here the people using it are clearly indulging in slut-shaming and insulting sex-workers. Unfortunately, this organisation’s highly problematic name is not its biggest flaw.

 

  1. The women’s movement in France cannot be reduced to two controversial organisations

The organisation Ni Putes Ni Soumises which is here presented as LEADING the women’s movement in France is highly controversial, and not all feminists identify with it (this is an understatement). As Christine Delphy explains, this organisation receives enormous public subsidies (she says €500.000 a year, i. e. about £400.000) for their campaigns. Their campaigns specifically targets Muslim men, Arabic men, men of North-African immigration descent, and men living in what is usually called in French “les banlieues”, a derogatory term referring to the socially and racially segregated French urban areas. This organisation has been used by political leaders and intellectuals from both the Socialist Party and from the party of former-president Sarkozy to make an active islamophobic propaganda against women wearing the hijab in the name of secularism and feminism.

The organisation Osez le Féminisme ! (Dare Feminism!) is relatively recent and I don’t know much about it (it seems less catastrophic than the other one) except that it is quite liberal and that it is closely linked to the Socialist Party (many of its founding members are members of the Socialist Party, and its campaigns and petitions are usually backed up by leaders of the Socialist Party.)

This does not mean that Hollande’s propositions in the letter he wrote to Ni Putes Ni Soumises should be discarded before reading. But we should keep in mind that he chose as a platform the website of this particular organisation, which he considers as acceptable (maybe as opposed to other, more radical organisations?) When he says, addressing this group “apart from certain detail, your propositions are exactly the one I advocate for”, the propositions are not necessarily intersectional and feminist. And not necessarily feminist, for that matter.

It also means that the fact that these two organisations seems to be quite pleased with Hollande’s victory is not necessarily an indication that all feminists feel the same about it. I believe that the links between these organizations and the Socialist Party does not encourage a critical attitude towards Hollande’s programme.

 

  1. A closer (subjective and not systematic) look at Hollande’s propositions

We can sort his propositions in three categories. Some of his propositions are undeniably good (a). Others are pending (b). And there is sometimes a general sense of discomfort towards what he says (c).

a. Category “good idea, let’s see what you actually do with it”:

  • In the letter containing his propositions, he uses the word “lesbophobic”, in a sentence that condemns lesbophobia, along with gender-based, sexist and homophobic stereotypes which induce violence and discriminations. I must say that reading “lesbophobic” in a letter signed by the President made me really happy (which can also be interpreted as a sign of how bad patriarchy is.)
  • Even if he doesn’t say it this way, he acknowledges the unequal division of domestic labour, and hints at what could be understood as unequal division of emotion- and care-based labour (“in most cases, it is women who interrupt their career to look after their children or accompany a depending relative”).
  • He makes a couple of (basic and normal) good promises: 100% coverage of abortion fees by health-care system, better localisation of hospitals and maternity hospitals, better access to women’s shelters, easy anonymous and free access to contraception for minors, more systematic and stereotype-free sexual education, formation of teachers and doctors to gender and sexuality issues. This is good. It is vague, but good.

b. Category “wait… doesn’t this sound better than it actually is?”:

Hollande has several times repeated, as far as ruling modalities are concerned, that he wanted to have a government with as many self-defining men as self-defining women, and to have a Ministry for the Rights of Women (note that we avoid the singular form). These are not necessarily bad ideas, but… these are just ideas:

  • Having a government with as many women as men can be a good thing, but it does not make feminist politics, since you can have women in a government and make very hard-core patriarchal politics.
  • There is the obvious risk of backlash, these women and this ministry being likely to be used by anti-feminist people as evidence that they are extremely progressive (which is the state-scale equivalent of “I am not a woman-hater, I am married to a woman!”).
  • If these women do not (entirely) betray their class once they are in power and manage to put feminist issues on the agenda, they are unlikely to be taken seriously. And if they are taken seriously (which is certain to demand a lot of work and energy and exposure and suffering from their part), it will not mean that less priviledged women are.

In short, these promises make nice pictures but they do not guarantee a significant amelioration of women’s daily lives. On a more optimistic note, we have to break the circle at some point, and having women in power positions can (hopefully) alter the gender stereotypes and representations and be, to some extent and in the long run, a good thing.

c. Category “sorry man, you got it all wrong” (based only on the letter):

  • No systematic use of gendered speech
  • No denunciation of patriarchy as a system
  • No mention of particular types of oppression experienced by trans, racialised, old, disabled women
  • No mention of fighting in-the-name-of-feminism-and-secularism islamophobia
  • No mention of how feminist organisations receiving subsidies will maintain their independence
  • Patronizing and condescending thanks to feminist organizations for their work and their contribution to women’s movement (you are very welcome).

 

  1. So, is it a good thing that Hollande was elected for women and the women’s movement?

I would lie if I said I am was not relieved that Hollande was elected. Not happy. I will be happy the day a lesbian woman gets elected President and then says “let’s have a general assembly instead”. But relieved, definitely. We have seen what a really conservative government can do to public sector, and public sector happens to do at the scale of the country the job women do in their daily lives: education and care for others. (It’s not my idea, it’s French sociologist Bourdieu’s). So when the state doesn’t provide with basic care and proper education, it’s women’s job to do it (because after all, it’s in their nature.) Another five years of right to far-right government would have been a disaster for everybody and for women in particular, and not only because, as Alexandra Topping says, “as [Sarkozy’s] tenure progressed the number of women in his government dwindled”.

But we still need to smash capitalism AND patriarchy, which is not something Hollande is going to do. I am relieved that Hollande was elected because some of the measures he proposes can make some women’s lives better, and that most women cannot afford not to rejoice about Sarkozy’s defeat and wait for a double revolution. If Hollande and his government give money to the women’s movement, to maternity hospitals, to shelters and crisis centres, we will take it. It is pragmatic, and can be called reformist. But this money makes a difference.

And finally Hollande’s victory can also be analysed from a struggle-based, revolutionary perspective. Having this party in charge can make the revolution task easier through funding for women’s organisations, union rights, right to protest, and less harsh repression. I voted for the Socialist Party because it will be easier to overthrow thank Sarkozy. Please don’t tell them.

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