sexism in Paris

Today, President Emmanuel Macron will deliver a televised speech to the nation to detail measures his government has taken to combat violence against women. All this, of course, has come in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein affair. And from pressure from French women who marched in the streets of Paris this week decrying “the vertiginous silence of our society” and “an intolerable collective denial.”

I would have marched with them, but then decided it was time for French women to do their own protesting. For too long now, I’ve watched the strident feminist voices of opposition coming across the Atlantic from North America, mainly the USA. It’s time now for French women to take to the streets and demand change themselves. They’ve been far too passive. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, there was no sisterhood in this country (and little dissent.) This resulted in aiding and abeting the deeply entrenched sexism here. 

Here’s an anecdote: it was 1999 and I was sick and tired of the sexist advertising campaigns in this country. There was one ad – plastered on the metro station walls all over the city – that particularly irked me. It showed a young woman, buck naked and covered in oil that made her skin glisten, crouched down, her feet in starting blocks, her bum in the air. I can’t remember what the ad was for (does it matter?) Fed up, I contacted the only feminist group that existed at that time, they called themselves Les Chiennes de Garde which is a play on words. It means “watchdogs”, but “chienne” also means “bitch”, as in a female dog.

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These are advertising campaigns displayed on huge posters in bus shelters and other places around the country. Up until a few years ago, nobody complained much. (This woman looks like a plastic mannequin.)

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Notice how the head is cropped, dehumanizing and objectifying the female body.

I introduced myself, saying I was from Canada and I was shocked not only by the sexist advertising, but the seeming absence of any feminist or protest group in France. The women from the Chiennes de Garde were extremely hostile and unwelcoming towards me. In the end, they instructed me to do the following – to go down into the Parisian subway stations at night, around 10 pm when there was less traffic, and plaster the offending posters with stickers that read “NON à l’utilisation du corps de la femme à des fins mercantiles!” (NO to the use of women’s bodies for commercial purposes!)

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“OK,” I said gamely, “How many will we be?”

“You’ll be alone,” was the answer. “Alone?” I replied, “I was hoping this would be a group action.” Apparently not. What happened to their slogan “mener une action collective“? (take collective action). I guess they had more important things to attend to. But I was not discouraged. Fine, I said to myself, I’ll tackle this thing single-handedly. And so I spent a few hours hand-writing with a magic marker ‘NON à l’utilisation du corps de la femme à des fins mercantiles’ onto a hundred stickers and out I went into the night, at around 10 pm.

And I did the action, alone and with no help from Les Chiennes de Garde or anyone else, riding the metro and getting out at the stations where I saw the offending poster and sticking my sticker onto it then waiting for the next train to get back on and continue riding the rails. Later I learned that it’s illegal to deface advertising posters (they hadn’t told me this.) I was also probably filmed by the subway station cameras, but no-one stopped me. The next morning I took the metro to work and in each station I saw my little stickers on the posters. I giggled inwardly and felt good.

Flash-forward to November 2017 and French women marching in the streets of Paris –

“President Macron!,” they exhorted, “You have the power to ensure that sexual violence stops.” They demanded a plan of action with concrete measures. The key words of the new governmental measures are “protection” and “punishment.” To protect women at home, in the streets and in the workplace, and to enforce disciplinary measures against their harassers. Let’s see if President Macron delivers.

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