A few years ago, I spent a couple of months interviewing Parisians on various subjects: the city itself, what it means to be un parisien, globalization, the 35-hour work week ... and le féminisme. I chose the subject of feminism because I knew that, for many French men and women, the word has negative connotations.
Although the word is officially defined in French much the same as it is in English — "a social movement for the emancipation of women and the extension of women's rights with the goal of equalizing the status of women to that of men, in particular in the domains of law, politics, economics and ideology," according to my French dictionary — French citizens tend to add some other, less positive meanings to the word: Militant. Anti-male. Anti-feminine.
All of the women I interviewed expressed their belief that women are equal to men, and should be paid the same and have the same status in society. But they did not want to be called feminists. When I asked this question, "Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?" Most of them responded, "Oh, no," and they recoiled as they said it. The men had similar reactions. Although they believed men and women are equal and should be treated as such, they did not define themselves as feminists. In fact, most of them scoffed, "I can't be feminist. I'm a man."
These conversations came back to me last week as the "le scandale DSK" (the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal) unfolded. I, like the French, was shocked that the head of the IMF and a possible candidate for the 2012 election had been arrested and accused of a sex crime. I was not surprised at the anti-American backlash that ensued when DSK was made to do the New York "perp walk." But when 57% of French citizens declared that they thought DSK was a victim of a conspiracy, even as the French media admitted that the politician had long had "a problem with women," I raised an eyebrow. And when DSK's buddy Jack Lang (a former socialist minister) said whatever happened in that hotel room wasn't a big deal because "no man had died," and then TV pundit/philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévi (pictured here with his wife) chimed in to complain that the 'hypocritical American justice system" didn't understand that "everyone is not equal," even the French admitted that things had gone too far.
France has a problem with sexism and classism and racism. The country is stuck in the 1960s. And the only positive outcome of last week's media circus (which the Americans were also accused of leading, although there hasn't been much else reported in France over the past seven days besides le scandale DSK) is that it has gotten France talking about feminism (and classism and even a little bit about racism). As of today, a group called Oser le Féminisme (basically, Dare to Be Feminist, which says it all) has collected 6,000 signatures denouncing the treatment of women in French society.
It will be interesting to see how many françaises — and français — will indeed dare to join the movement.