Where Having It All Doesn’t Mean Having Equality
By KATRIN BENNHOLD
PARIS — Could there be anything more French than this workout?
Weeks after giving birth, French women are offered a state-paid, extended course of vaginal gymnastics, complete with personal trainer, electric stimulation devices and computer games that reward particularly nimble squeezing. The aim, said Agnes de Marsac, a physiotherapist who runs such sessions: “Making love again soon and making more babies.”
Perineal therapy is as ubiquitous in France as free nursery schools, generous family allowances, tax deductions for each child, discounts for large families on high-speed trains, and the expectation that after a paid, four-month maternity leave mothers are back in shape — and back at work.
Courtesy of the state, French women seem to have it all: multiple children, a job and, often, a figure to die for.
What they don’t have is equality: France ranks 46th in the World Economic Forum’s 2010 gender equality report, trailing the United States, most of Europe, but also Kazakhstan and Jamaica. Eighty-two percent of French women aged 25-49 work, many of them full-time, but 82 percent of parliamentary seats are occupied by men. French women earn 26 percent less than men but spend twice as much time on domestic tasks. They have the most babies in Europe, but are also the biggest consumers of anti-depressants.
A recent 22-country survey by the Pew Research Center summed it up: three in four French people believe men have a better life than women, by far the highest share in any country polled.
“French women are exhausted,” said Valérie Toranian, editor-in-chief of Elle magazine in France. “We have the right to do what men do — as long as we also take care of the children, cook a delicious dinner and look immaculate. We have to be superwoman.”
The birthplace of Simone de Beauvoir and Brigitte Bardot may look Scandinavian in employment statistics, but it remains Latin in attitude. French women appear to worry about being feminine, not feminist, and French men often display a form of gallantry predating the 1789 revolution. Indeed, the liberation of French women can seem almost accidental — a byproduct of a paternalist state that takes children under its republican wings from toddler age and an obsession with natality rooted in three devastating wars.
“At the origin, family policy wasn’t about women, it was about Germany,” said Geneviève Fraisse, author of several books on gender history. “French mothers have conditions women elsewhere can only dream of. But stereotypes remain very much intact.”
Or, as the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy put it: “France is an old Gallic macho country.”
France crystallizes the paradox facing many women across the developed world in the early 21st century: They have more say over their sexuality (in France birth control and abortion are legal and subsidized), they have overtaken men in education and are catching up in the labor market, but few make it to the top of business or politics.
Only one of France’s top companies is run by a woman: Anne Lauvergeon is chief executive of the nuclear power giant Areva and mother of two young children.
Having those children is relatively easy in France, one reason Paris seems to teem with stylish career women with several offspring.
At 31, Fleur Cohen has four children and works full-time as a doctor at a Left Bank hospital. As she drops her youngest at nursery in stilettos and pencil skirt you would never guess that she gave birth only three months ago.
Child No. 4 wasn’t “planned,” Ms. Cohen said, but it doesn’t change all that much: Instead of three children, she now takes four on the Metro in the morning and drops them at the public school and subsidized hospital nursery. She joked that children are probably the best way to reduce your tax bill. Irrespective of income, parents get a monthly allowance of €123, or about $170, for two children, €282 for three children and an additional €158 for every child after that. Add to that tax deductions and other benefits, and the Cohens pretty much stopped paying tax after baby No. 3.
Across town, Ms. de Marsac snapped on a plastic glove, inserted two fingers between Clara Pflug’s legs and told her to think of the wings of a butterfly as she contracted her birth canal muscles. The French state offers mothers 10 one-on-one, half-hour sessions of perineal therapy to prevent post-pregnancy incontinence and organ descent — and to improve sex. Ten sessions of free abdominal exercises follow; Ms. de Marsac promises Ms. Pflug a “washboard tummy.”
French women have on average two babies, compared with 1.5 in the European Union overall.
Asked by foreign delegations about “le miracle français,” Nadine Morano, the feisty family minister and mother of three, says bluntly: “We spend the most money and we offer good childcare, it’s as simple as that. Our country understood a long time ago that to reconstruct a nation you need children.”
The 1870 defeat by a much more fertile Prussia led to first efforts to encourage childbirth. Then came the losses of World War I. Since 1920, when the gold Medal of the French Family — to honor mothers of eight or more — was created, expenditure on pro-breeding policies has blossomed. Last year, €97 billion, or 5.1 percent of gross domestic product — twice the E.U. average — went on family, childcare and maternity benefits.
Emblematic in this regard are the “écoles maternelles,” free all-day nursery schools set up a century after the French revolution in part, said Michelle Perrot, a historian, to stamp out the lingering influence of the Roman Catholic Church.
La Flèche houses the oldest école maternelle in France. At 8:30 a.m., parents drop off toddlers as young as two. Classes end at 4:30 p.m. but a free municipal service offers optional childcare until 6:30 p.m. Children are guaranteed a place in “maternelle” from the age of three and 99 percent of them attend.
Katy de Bresson, a single mother of two, called the enrollment of her son Arthur a “mini-revolution.” Free of all childcare costs, she could return to work full-time. “I am a lot happier and a lot more self-confident since then.”
Working mothers being the norm, Isabelle Nicolas, a nurse whose youngest son, Titouan, is in Arthur’s class and who quit work after his birth, feels pressure to return. “I spend a lot of time justifying myself,” she said. “In France you are expected to do it all.”
But ask any mother here whether school had changed the life of her husband and the answer is “non.”
“The school is called ‘maternelle’ for a reason,” said principal Anne Leguen. “In France, children are still considered to be the responsibility of mothers.”
Forty percent of French mothers undergo a career change within a year of giving birth, compared with 6 percent of men. Both parents have the right to take time off or reduce their hours until the child turns three — but 97 percent of those who do are women.
Women spend on average five hours and one minute per day on childcare and domestic tasks, while men spend two hours and seven minutes, according to the national statistics office Insee.
In Paris, Ms. Cohen’s husband is a doctor, too. But she bathes all four children, cooks and does the Saturday shopping — largely, she insists, by choice. “If I didn’t prepare food for my children, I would feel less like a mother,” she said.
At work, meanwhile, she plays down motherhood. She sneaks down to the hospital nursery to nurse her baby son, and tries to stay longer than her male colleagues in the evenings. Otherwise, “everyone will just assume that I’m leaving because of my children and that I am not committed to the job.”
A majority of medical graduates in France are female. Yet all 11 department heads in her hospital are men.
“French men have always been slow to give up power,” said Jean-François Copé, parliamentary leader of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right party, who is defending a bill to oblige companies to fill 40 percent of boardroom seats with women.
The French Republic made “equality” a founding principle, but women were allowed to vote for the first time only in 1945. Since a 1998 law obliged political parties to have an equal number of men and women candidates on their party lists, parties have tended to pay fines rather than comply.
Women leaders come under close scrutiny in what is after all the home of couture. Ms. Morano recalls being mocked on television for wearing the same jacket several times. Ms. Lauvergeon likened her outfit to “armor.”
Four pieces of equal pay legislation have passed since 1972. But in 2009, even childless women in their forties still earned 17 percent less than men.
“A patriarchal corporate culture,” is the main barrier facing women in French companies, according to Brigitte Grésy, author of a 2009 report on gender equality in the workplace.
France is Latin not just in its culture of seduction, but also in its late work hours, Ms. Grésy said. And the disproportional weight of a small number of male-dominated engineering schools in grooming the elites has done its part in excluding women from power. Xavier Michel, president of École Polytechnique, points out that the number of female students has risen tenfold from seven to 70 since he graduated in 1972 — but that leaves it at just 14 percent.
Simone Veil was 18 when French women first voted and 28 when she was allowed to open her own bank account. At 38, as health minister, she pushed through the legalization of abortion. “A lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t,” she says today. More comfort to her than many of the laws in recent years is the fact that more fathers push strollers through her neighborhood.
Ms. Fraisse, the philosopher, says more than two centuries after France got rid of the king as the father of the nation, it needs to get rid of the father as the king of the family. “We had one revolution,” she said, “now we need another one — in the family.”