Sexism is alive and well in France

I’ve felt this post coming on for a long time – about 13 years, in fact.  Much as I love France, there’s one aspect to which I will never be reconciled: the attitude to women, especially the further south you go. 

The following are some examples of how this attitude manifests itself. When my husband and I married in England, I kept my maiden name, for good reasons I won’t bore you with.  No one turned a hair and there were no difficulties about dealing with every aspect of life under that name.  Move to France, however, and it’s like another planet.  Here, I am simply an adjunct of my husband. 

For example:

  • We recently bought a new car and patiently explained to the concessionnaire that I had kept my own surname.  Yes, yes, that was understood, no problem, etc.  Except that all the letters they wrote us were addressed to M et Mme (husband’s surname).  When the carte grise (registration document) came through – addressed only to my husband, naturally – his name appeared on it but I was not even mentioned (despite being the joint owner and having paid for half the car).  In the small print somewhere it indicated that there was another owner, but gave no name.
  • I am the official owner of our house, but every time the mairie writes to us, the letter is addressed solely to my husband.
  • When I ordered a bank card some years ago it was delivered with my husband’s surname on it, despite the fact that I have no bank account in that name. 

I could go on at tedious length, but it’s too depressing.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been made to feel invisible while the civil servant/lawyer/shop assistant/whatever addresses only my husband.  I call it the death by a thousand cuts.  But what can you expect of a country that gave women the vote only in 1944 and where until sometime in the mid-sixties a woman who wanted to exercise a profession had to get her husband’s formal permission?  There’s a lot of lip-service paid to égalité, but throughout France women are treated as less than equals.

I take my hat off to women who succeed in public life here.  It’s not so much a glass ceiling as a titanium one, so they must be b****y tough.  Christine Lagarde, for example, the Finance Minister, is one of those who has chiselled her way through.  She has managed to hang onto her job for a lot longer than nearly all her (male) predecessors. 

I know: we chose to live here, so I should just accept French society and culture as I find them.  I can’t buy that.  When I started this blog, I promised myself that I would tell it warts and all and try not to portray only the sunny side of life here.  Sexism is a form of oppression just as unpleasant as any other and should be opposed as such. I know that some of my readers disagree with me; that is their prerogative. I can only tell it as I find it, having lived in both countries. 

So I will fight on the beaches; I will never surrender. 

Rant over.  Jollier stuff next time, promise.

Copyright © 2010 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved.

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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7 Responses to Sexism is alive and well in France

  1. Sarah E. says:

    I am not sure I understand what you mean by “sexist”. Using your husband’s name is not sexist it is actually what everybody do here. And about the letter from the mairie this is not usual and in any case proper to France. You probably interpet a cultural difference as “sexism” ?

    ” I take my hat off to women who succeed in public life here. ” There are more women in the French government (at important level) in France than in Britain aren’t they ?

    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks for your comment, Sarah. It’s not just the name issue; I am regularly treated as inferior to and less important than my husband and I regard that as sexism, even allowing for cultural differences about whose name you use. Presumably, there are some French women who choose to keep their maiden name, since you can opt to do this on the Déclaration des Revenus. As for the letters from the Mairie, they should surely be addressed to the owner of the house, regardless of who they are? At the very least, they could have addressed them to both of us.

      You’re right, there are more women at a high level in government in France than in Britain, so things are changing. However, this is partly because, when he was elected in 2007, Sarkozy set a quota for half the ministers to be women. There is no similar quota in Britain. I reserve judgment on whether quotas are a good thing or not. I also did a quick bit of research and found that 22% of MPs in Britain and 17.5% of Députés in France are women – not exactly representative of society in general in either case. I would be interested to know how they compare at other levels of public life.

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  3. Lore says:

    Hi again Vanessa and thank you for your wonderful and informative blog! As for my previous comment, I was wondering whether or not the authorities would’ve done the same if you were pacsés instead of being married.

    • nessafrance says:

      Hi there. Thanks for the kind words about my blog. I don’t know much about the pacs system, not being applicable to me, but I expect you’re right that it would be different if you were pacsé(e) – after all, you would retain your maiden name. I still don’t think it would change much about the basic attitude to women, though. And I’m sure that there are pros and cons to whichever civil status you choose. I suppose we could get divorced and then pacsés – but no, the bureaucracy involved makes my blood run cold!!

  4. Lore says:

    I’m glad I stumbled upon your blog especially because it shows both the good and the ugly sides of France. The big shock for me is that you weren’t mentioned on the carte grise or the letter from the mairie. In my opinion this raises another issue, incomplete official documents could potentially mean trouble when trying to sort things out :(

    • nessafrance says:

      Hi again and thanks for this comment. I am trying to show life in France as it is – warts and all. There’s a tendency only to concentrate on the rosy side of life here – and there is one, no doubt about it – but there are some things that really annoy me too. But no place on earth is ideal. I am probably an exceptional case in having chosen to retain my maiden name, but the whole attitude to women is behind where it should be.

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