Marlène Schiappa discusses Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuel Macron, and the path forward for French women.
Last month, just before “Saturday Night Live” parodied Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot as wine-swilling reactionaries, Marlène Schiappa, a Frenchwoman with significantly greater authority on gender issues, made a quick visit to New York. Schiappa is the gender-equality minister in President Emmanuel Macron’s government. A former blogger (her Web site, Maman Travaille, was among the country’s first online resources for working mothers) and author (she edited an anthology called “Letters to My Uterus”), she is, according to a recent poll, the fourth most popular member of the Macron cabinet, and among the most outspoken. Since her appointment, last May, she has campaigned against les violences obstétricales—painful or traumatizing procedures that women undergo during childbirth, including unnecessary episiotomies. The day after the publication of the Deneuve letter, which Schiappa deemed “dangerous,” she exchanged friendly tweets with Asia Argento, one of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers.
“The French feminist movement has never been a single bloc, it’s never been monolithic,” Schiappa said upon her return to Paris, receiving a visitor in her office. Among other jabs the Deneuve letter made at American-style feminism, it denounced the “puritanism” of the #MeToo movement. Schiappa went on, “In France, when one wants to say that we mustn’t go too far, the expression is ‘We must not Americanize society.’ As if people in the United States don’t seduce each other, don’t have relationships. I was in New York for two days. I took elevators with men. They didn’t make me sign a contract beforehand saying that I wasn’t going to sue them. It’s even possible that some of them might have flirted.”
Schiappa, who is thirty-five, had gone to New York to attend a conference on women in corporate leadership. Her itinerary left no time for extracurriculars. “I ate a club sandwich,” she said. Her impressions owed as much to Tocqueville as they did to Lena Dunham and to Jezebel, both of whom she cited as influences. “I always notice the energy and the volunteerism that exist in America,” she said. “Regarding the place of women, the reflex in France is to say, ‘What’s the state going to do for me?’ ” In New York, Schiappa had announced that the French government was creating, in partnership with the World Economic Forum, a task force, in order, she said, “to take the best of public engagement from France, and the best of private engagement from the States.”
Macron has designated gender equality the grande cause of his five-year term. In the legislative elections last June, half of his party’s slate of candidates were women. (Gender parity has been the law in France since 2000, but parties often choose to pay fines rather than heed it.) Two hundred and twenty-three women were elected to the French parliament, making it thirty-eight per cent female, nearly fifty per cent more than the previous record. Still, some feminists feel let down by Macron, who had strongly hinted that he might pick a female to be Prime Minister, only to select Édouard Philippe, an establishmentarian whose sole contribution to diversity is his beard. And this month a woman accused Gérald Darmanin, Macron’s young budget minister, of having raped her in 2009. (Darmanin has said that he will sue her for defamation. In 2004, she was convicted of blackmail.)
The situation has put Schiappa in a tricky position. “I couldn’t be in a government with someone who was charged with rape,” she said. “But there is a presumption of innocence, and he hasn’t been charged.” (Last week, another minister, Nicolas Hulot, was accused of sexual assault. He denies any wrongdoing.) She continued, cleverly, “Just because there was a complaint against this woman for defamation doesn’t mean we have to consider her guilty of defamation.”
In a recent profile titled “How Far Will Marlène Schiappa Go?,” the newsweekly Le Point characterized her as “the blundering, too talkative young cousin” of the administration. Annoyed with such coverage, she has begun wearing her hair in a businesslike updo, but she is determined, whatever controversy may come, to enact a law that would make street harassment punishable by an on-the-spot fine. “There’s a study that just came out that says that eight women in ten in France are afraid when they go out by themselves at night,” she said. “Importuner des femmes”—bothering women—she went on, using Deneuve’s formulation. “It’s not like they’re offering women a rose in the street.”
That weekend, she said, she had heard her eleven-year-old exchanging tips with a friend: “My daughter said, ‘Watch out if there’s a group of guys coming—you need to look straight in front of you.’ And her friend said, ‘That’s not my technique. I pretend to be on the phone or listening to music.’ ” Schiappa continued, “That says that we’re steeped in this, that it’s an inevitability—that when it rains we take an umbrella, that when we’re hungry we eat, that when we enter a shop we say ‘Bonjour,’ and that when someone harasses us in the street we do this. I find that terrible.” ♦