Sexism at the French National Assembly

French MP Véronique Massonneau

French MP Véronique Massonneau

It turns out that a Member of Parliament in France may still be subjected to sexist remarks at the National Assembly. As she was discussing an amendment during the pension-reform debate on October 8th, ecologist MP Véronique Massonneau was mocked by the center-right UMP party MP Philippe Le Ray who imitated a chicken’s “cackling”.

It is disappointing to see an elected representative give such an example of rudeness, at a very juncture when political figures in France are suffering from a growing discredit in the public opinion and the far right is growing stronger.

Disappointed, yet not really surprised, since similar discriminatory behavior has been exhibited too many times in the past. Indeed, political figures such as Dominique Voynet, Roselyne Bachelot, Michèle Barzach, Edith Cresson, Elisabeth Guigou, Catherine Trautmann, Rachida Dati and Cécile Duflot have all been subjected to sexist attacks, often in relation to their looks or their clothing.

Nevertheless, what is new this time – and it is a welcome change – was the reaction of the Assembly: indeed, it sanctioned financially the MP for his sexist behavior, apparently a first in France. Furthermore, the incident was widely reported in the media and Le Ray apologized, in private, to Massonneau (although his excuse – “I cannot be sexist: I have female employees” – recalling the famous “Some of my best friends are Jews” expression, has only betrayed his apparently limited capacity for reflection).

This incident helps to remind us that there has long been in France a culture with a relatively high degree of tolerance for everyday sexism, compared to similar Western countries. Just like with racism or anti-Semitism, however, sexist speech may lead to actual aggression. Therefore it is all the more shocking to see public personalities forgetting their important responsibility for setting an example both in speech and in behavior.

A French lawyer told me a few years ago that the notion of “date rape”, sadly well-known in the United States, simply did not exist in French law until recently. Thus, rape was in effect insufficiently punished. This fact reminded me – to a certain extent – of the so-called “mitigating circumstances” that Turkish justice had been granting for a long time to men committing “honor killings” in Turkey. To my surprise, French justice thus seemed closer to Turkish justice than to American justice, at least in this particular aspect.

Still, it would be unfair to use a single aspect of women’s social standing to make generalizations about the relative situation of women in the two countries. Indeed, there is no use reminding, say, that women in Turkey obtained the right to vote fifteen years before French women while attacks against women and female suicides due to social and family pressure have surged in recent years [1]. Likewise, there is no point boasting that women’s labor-force participation rate in France is close to three times that of Turkish women [2], while every two and a half days one woman gets killed by her partner in France [3].

What does matter is the presence of a potential within society to help improve the condition of women. Specifically, do Turkish and French institutions, including the media and NGO’s, have the freedom as well as the means to act and influence policies regarding the social standing of women?

It is hard to answer this question favorably for Turkey. Indeed, in 2002-2004 it was mostly – if not only – the prospect of Turkey’s EU candidacy that had allowed making progress in the Turkish criminal law concerning “honor killings”. Today, however, the government has succeeded in creating a climate of censorship where the most recent example was the firing of a TV-show host because of her “improper cleavage” [4]. And as to any positive effect of the EU candidacy, it is almost non-existent, given the extent to which Turkish – EU relations have deteriorated in recent years. Nevertheless, the recently released EU “Progress report on Turkey” [5] could just constitute an opportunity to rebuild trust between the two parties, according to columnist Cengiz Aktar [6]. The European Commission’s October 22nd decision to restart membership talks after a three-year break is a clear indication. My next blog will cover this topic.

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