Last Lady

In the aftermath of the Hollande-Gayet-Trierweiller sex scandal, or love vortex – depending on which side of the Channel you’re viewing things from – Le Nouvel Observateur asked me to comment on the following: Is the notion of ‘Premiere Dame’ (First Lady) an intrinsically sexist concept? Once I’d overcome my surprise that this should be a question (I was hard pushed to answer anything other than, ‘Er. Yeah?’) I began to wonder why it is that France is ahead of Britain and America in so many ways when it comes to gender equality (for the number of women in the cabinet, in parliament and in the boardroom) and yet far behind us in so many other ways – decades, possibly even half a century behind.

A vestige of the Ancien Regime like so many other features of the political and cultural life of this country, I was amused by the fact that the role of Premiere Dame is only now being called into question. In the grubby wake of the revelations about the President’s love life, his immediate entourage started wondering out loud on French radio whether the role of Premiere Dame shouldn’t be abolished altogether. After all, pointed out François Rebsamen, it was pretty undemocratic when you thought about it. I got the distinct impression, listening to this new debate that people felt things might have gone more smoothly for the President had Valerie Trierweiller not had her own desk at the Elysees. They’re wrong of course. Whether a Premiere Dame, or a premiere femme, a premiere concubine, or a premier reporter, Valerie Trierweiller could never have slipped discretely from public life, even if she’d wanted to. France is no longer an island, a national jardin secret safe from the prying eyes of the global media and both Francois Hollande and the French presidency itself seem to be having some difficulty in waking up to this horrific truth.

This reluctance to face reality is reflected in the sparse and laconic communiqués that have been offered to foreign journalists by the Elysees ever since the story broke. “It’s hilarious,” one British correspondent told me. “The message from the beginning has been, This doesn’t concern you. What are they thinking?!” The assumptions embedded in the palace’s statements, that the French presidency is somehow inviolable and that journalists should toe the line are indeed quite funny, particularly when set against the cold realities of the outside world, a world in which newspapers must do battle with the Internet without the benefit of state subsidies (in 2010 France spent about 1.8 billion euros in direct aid to the press) and where most commissioning editors, living in a state of constant fear for their jobs, start frothing at the mouth when a story like this breaks. Far from applauding the realities of the outside world, next time something like this hits the headlines, I would invite the Elysees Palace at least to face up to them.

In fact, the Premiere Dame has been a defunct notion ever since Cecilia Sarkozy chucked her husband while he was in office and marched off the stage. And it was only because Carla Bruni was such a consummate actress (remember her sudden change of wardrobe, her demure, Jackie Kennedy-like demeanour?) that the French were beguiled into thinking the role might still be plausible. Trierweiller, however, knew better. “I won’t be a potiche,” (trophy wife) she warned. This, despite her best efforts, was exactly what she became.

I suspect that the inner tension Valerie Trierweiller clearly felt in playing this archaic role, as well as the confusion that seems to be characterising French public’s view of her so-called ‘repudiation’ are indicative of another and far more entrenched French paradox: that of a patriarchy in denial. One of the last European countries to give women the vote, France has been playing catch up all through the Fifth Republic. Acutely aware of how she looks to her European partners, the land of liberty, equality and fraternity has managed, where the number of women MPs in parliament is concerned, to race past Britain and America in a very short space of time. Thanks largely to her bold and controversial parity legislation of 2000, 27% of France’s MPs are now women, while Britain is stagnating around 22% and America around 18%. With 50% women in his cabinet, Hollande is doing far better than Cameron, who has only 5 out of 23 female cabinet members. So back off, my French friends often tell me. Stop lecturing us about sexism when we have a proper political consensus surrounding gender equality.

The problem, though, is the glass ceiling, a reality that despite it not existing in the French language is there nonetheless. This invisible barrier is most keenly felt by members of what the French call ‘the parity generation,’ (young people who have benefited directly from parity laws of 2000). Indeed Nataf Vallaud Belkacem, Hollande’s Women’s Rights Minister and his government spokesperson, has clearly elaborated France’s latest battery of gender legislation (which focuses on the ‘private’ spheres of abortion and paternity leave in particular) to try to break through this glass ceiling for the benefit, if not of herself, then of future generations. Frequently vilified for her ambition, the 37 year-old Belkacem has had to develop nerves of steel to rise above the steady tide of sexism that laps around her ankles. Laurent Telo’s article in last week’s Le Monde, published under the title “Dents Longues et Langue de Bois”, a reference to the Minister’s perceived ‘long teeth’ (rapacious ambition) and ‘wooden tongue’ (tendency to stonewall) is a good example of this. In his piece Telo compares Belkacem to a child ballerina in a tutu balancing between the President’s views and those of the Prime Minister and calls her, in a particularly clumsy attempt, perhaps, to compliment her on her beauty, “the Natalie Portman of Moroccans” (Belkacem is of Moroccan origin).

For me, the clearest manifestation of the enduring sexism that still clings to France despite the best intentions of her political leaders was the spectacle of Segolene Royal’s campaign for the presidency. I realised watching that campaign that France was simply not as ready for a female president as she thought she was. Remember the sabotage, first from Royal’s male colleagues within the Socialist party? Remember Melanchon’s ‘The Presidency of the Republic is not a beauty contest,’ and Fabius’ ‘Who will look after the children?’ But perhaps more alarmingly there was a survey conducted by the Nouvel Observateur in which 100 famous women were questioned on their feelings about the socialist candidate. The vast majority disliked Royal and their principle objection seemed to have something to do with her being a mother of four. Former porn star, Brigitte Lahaie said, “For her [Royal], the image of the mother overrides the image of the woman.’ And Alina Reyes, a feminist author of erotic fiction, said, “Ségolène Royal is an archaic female figure who calls upon that part of France which falls back onto family values. With her it’s regressus in utero.”

It was particularly, I felt, that the porn star and the feminist both invoked the predominantly male fantasy of the castrating mother. Even Catherine Millet, author of ‘The Sexual Life of Catherine M.’ seemed to be relaying the deepest fears of the male psyche ‘For me, she’s a Robespierrette. This country doesn’t need a “Mummy” to give it moral lectures.’

But perhaps this is the crucial point: the pillars of the French patriarchy appear to be resting solidly upon the myths, inherited from Catholicism and broadly accepted by both men and women in this country, which perpetuate those old but entrenched ideas surrounding a woman’s mystique and the sex appeal that goes with it. There is unquestionably a consensus, particularly among French women of my generation and above, that it’s important to be first and foremost attractive to men. Motherhood with its attendant mess of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding (to which, significantly, Simone de Beauvoir had an almost pathological repugnance) must never be allowed to interfere with a French woman’s sexiness. Indeed this, I’m sure, explains why so many of my French girlfriends find it so difficult to describe themselves as feminist. It’s simply not sexy.

This patriarchal climate will, I suspect, continue to hamper equality in France, despite all the well-intentioned gender legislation. Until, that is, the next generation of French women – women like my own daughter – decides it has had enough of the collusion. It also explains why poor, defiant, ill-equipped Valerie Trierweiller could never have won in the eyes of the French public. And why, even when the role of Premiere Dame no longer really exists, she’s still expected to behave with dignity.

5 thoughts on “Last Lady

  1. The aim, in Britain as also in France, is not so much directly to appear sexy to men, but to appear to other women as sexy to men. The result is often ridiculous to many a male observer, and just looks what Brits would call “tarty”.

    You keep saying France is decades “behind”. There’s little evidence of any movement to “catch up” outside — or even inside, going by the appalling catcalls — the Assemblée. Much indeed depends on the next generation, but don’t hold your breath.

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