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Women’s Affairs Ministry returns to French politics

media Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has been appointed Minister of Women's Affairs and … RFI

The Ministry of Women's Affairs is back in operation after being wound down in the 1980s. Women's groups are pushing for the ministry to reinstate a sexual harrassment law that was scrapped last month due to its vagueness.

Socialist president, François Hollande, reinstated the Ministry of Women’s Affairs this week in France after it was scrapped in the 1980s.

Moroccan-born Najat Vallaud-Belkacem heads the ministry, a role she combines with her appointment as government spokesperson.

Women's rights in France - given or taken?

“We are an old nation assembled around a certain idea of personal dignity, in particular the dignity of women …,” Sarkozy told the cabinet when it discussed the burka ban. But for many feminists women’s rights have been hard won, often in the face of determined establishment opposition.  

The right to vote - although the revolutionary Paris commune in 1871 gave women full political rights, they were abolished as soon as the rebellion was repressed. Not even the left-wing Popular Front of the 1930s gave women the right to vote. French women as a whole did not win this key democratic right until liberation from German occupation in 1944. That was after most Scandinavian countries, the Soviet Union, the UK, Burma and the Philippines.

Women in parliament – 41.6 per cent of candidates in the 2007 general election were women, up from 9.6 per cent in 1945; 20 per cent of elected National Assembly members are women, compared to 48.8 per cent in Rwanda and 47.3 per cent in Sweden.

Women in government – Thirteen out of the 40 members of Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet are women, compared to eight out of 16 ministers in Spain and four out of 24 in the new British cabinet.
Equality at work – In 2006 the average woman’s salary was 27 per cent lower than that of a man. A law against sexual harassement at work was introduced in 1991.

Domestic violence – A 1999 study found that more than 1.5 million women in France had been subjected to verbal, physical or sexual violence, while one in 20 women said they had suffered physical assault, ranging from blows to attempted murder. Most violence took place within the family and domestic violence affects all classes. The first women’s refuge was set up in Clichy, near Paris, in 1975. The appeals court recognised rape within marriage in 1990. The government has named the fight against violence against women the “great national cause of 2010”.

Birth control – Contraception and abortion were banned in a law passed in 1920. A law authorising the distribution of contraceptives, proposed by right-wing MP Lucien Neuworth, was passed in principle in 1967. But, thanks to resistance by the Catholic church, it only came into force in 1972. Simone Veil’s law legalising abortion was passed in 1975 after a long campaign by feminists and their supporters.

Parental leave and child care – Men and women can take up to three years unpaid parental leave. France has one of the most generous child care systems in the world. Parents can send their children to publicly or privately run nurseries from the age of three months. Most crèches are open 11 hours a day and close for only one month in the summer.
Who wears the trousers? – Women wearing trousers in France are still technically breaking the law, although few of them are aware of the fact. A 19th-century law stipulating that any woman “wishing to dress as a man” must obtain permission from the local préfecture has never been repealed, although later exceptions were made for women holding a horse’s reins or a bicycyle’s handelbars. When right-wing MP Jean-Yves Hugon suggested that the law be scrapped in 2003, he was told that it was not worth the bother.


The thirty four-year-old served as a spokesperson for both Ségolène Royal in 2007 and Hollande in 2012. Women’s groups welcome her appointments.

Fifty per cent of ministers in Hollande’s government are women - 17 out of 34 - although feminists have expressed disappointment that the majority of the most important posts have gone to men.

Vallaud-Belkacem has already been confronted with her first battle. Women’s groups are up in arms about the repeal of the sexual harassment law earlier this month.

The Constitutional Council overturned the law following a complaint by deputy mayor of the Rhône region who complained it was too broad.

The law came into force shortly after the high-profile rape case alleged by a hotel chambermaid against former IMF-head and social party member, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, induced a flood of sexual harassment cases in France.

However, all cases that had not yet come to court by the time the law was repealed may now have to be dropped.

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