Why A Feminist French Revolution Seems Long Overdue

The latest scandal to roil French political waters resulted in the resignation last month of Denis Baupin, vice-president of the National Assembly, France's lower house of Parliament, following public accusations that he had sexually harassed female colleagues. A rising star in the Green Party (supposedly France's most feminist-friendly party), Baupin, 54, had not only physically assaulted his female colleagues but, when spurned, had threatened them with reprisals. In an immediate show of solidarity 16 current and former French women ministers, including Christine Lagarde, ex-minister of the economy, now head of the IMF; Roselyne Bachelot, ex-minister of health; and Cécile Duflot, ex-minister of housing and head of the environmentalist party, signed a "Statement Against Sexism," and the Paris prosecutor has announced an investigation.

Immediately afterwards, the avuncular Finance Minister Michel Sapin made a defensive public apology for his "inappropriate" behavior with a woman journalist at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The incredible fact is that Baupin's victims were all high-ranking officials in a major French party, but until now no one reported him even though the harassment and physical assaults had gone on for years and apparently were known about by party members of both sexes. He was nicknamed "The Octopus." One woman who had been assaulted by Baupin said that she became physically ill when she saw him wearing lipstick at a parade in support of International Women's Day.

Only five years ago Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF and a leading contender for the French presidency, was arrested for assaulting a female hotel worker in New York. It ruined his career (although Strauss-Kahn's allegedly abusive behavior toward women had long been an open secret), but until now the much-discussed fallout apparently didn't do much to encourage French women to come forward when they themselves were sexually harassed. The fact is that when women in France complain of this sort of abuse in the workplace they still risk being ostracized or worse, losing their jobs. And if they go to the police they are rarely taken seriously due to an institutionalized sexism that is rarely openly confronted.

It doesn't help that one of the most prominent feminist voices in France, Élisabeth Badinter, has said that women have made the mistake of "demonizing male sexuality" and are preoccupied by putting men on trial, which she calls a "dead end." So what's a woman to do if she suffers sexual harassment? And if there is a code of silence concerning harassment among some of the most successful, high-ranking women in the land, then what's to be done for the millions of Frenchwomen in low-echelon jobs: clerks, waitresses, office and factory workers, who are condemned to suffer in silence because the system is rigged against them, leaving them with no recourse. A feminist French revolution seems long overdue.

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