French ministers are being offered anti-sexism classes, in a bid to shed longstanding prejudices, stereotypes and gender inappropriate behavior in the annals of France’s elite political circles, exemplified by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case.
Ministers in French President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government don’t have to be Dominique Strauss Kahn to learn a lesson about inappropriate behaviour towards women. In a bid to clean up their conduct, French ministers are attending anti-sexism classes created by the Ministry for Women’s Rights. Among other topics covered in the hour-long course are the ins and outs of gender stereotyping, inappropriate language, and tips on avoiding gaffes. Domestic violence and wage disparity are also addressed.
A dozen or so ministers have already attended, with another 26 enrolled, and the response has so far been positive. “The ministers have loved it,” Reuters reported a government source saying. “They’re coming up with ideas on where and how they can put it into practice.”
The new initiative comes more than a year after Dominique Strauss-Kahn thrust the issue of attitudes towards women among France’s political classes into the spotlight, when the Socialist politician was arrested in New York over allegations he tried to rape a hotel maid. At that time, Strauss-Kahn – or DSK as he’s known in France – was the head of the IMF and just days away from announcing his bid to run for the French presidency - an ambition that was thwarted in the wake of the scandal.
Back in France, DSK’s misadventures led to a period of intense soul-searching as it blew the lid off a culture of tacit acceptance of sexism and sexual harassment in French political circles and beyond, which has proved stubborn to dislodge. In one example, Minister of Territories and Housing Cécile Duflot was hooted at by her male colleagues when she took to the podium at the French parliament for wearing a floral dress back in July. As FRANCE 24 Journalist Sophie Pigrim observed at the time, the incident harked back to the early 1800s, when “middle-aged, upper-class Frenchmen struggled to enforce their dress-code convictions on the female masses”.
In 1799, French lawmakers banned women in Paris from “dressing like a man”. The ban targeted trousers in particular, ruling that women wishing to cover her legs with trousers must obtain police permission beforehand and prove their medical reasons for doing so. The law, while futile today, nevertheless still exists.
Leaving the Dominique Strauss-Kahn era behind More than a year after the DSK scandal erupted, the new anti-sexism courses are a sign that a culture many feared was entrenched has started to adapt to 21st century morals. In August, the French parliament unanimously adopted new legislation making sexual harassment a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in jail to replace a law that was deemed too vague.
The law was rushed through both houses of parliament to appease public anger as the repeal of the original legislation in May saw all suits going through the courts being dropped. The new law broadened the definition of sexual harassment to cover a range of different situations, including "intimidating, hostile or offensive" behaviour.
Hollande also made workplace equality a priority, appointing as many female as male ministers for the first time in French parliamentary history – even if some have observed that men still have all the plum posts. But sometimes, despite the good intentions, ministers have committed gaffes that highlight the endurance of pernicious gender stereotypes. In an interview with the magazine L’Express earlier this year, Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said, "Out of 15 people in my cabinet, seven are women. I've tried to promote women as much as possible, even though the subjects are very technical."