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Do French women need feminism?

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"There is cheese, bullfighting, and the French way of seduction," she says. "We are being accused of wanting to sanitize the relationships between men and women.... [It] is claimed to be a puritanical feminism ... an American type of feminism."

Pro-childbearing, not-so-pro-equality

On the brisk Parisian streets of winter, mothers dressed in stylish boots and overcoats roll narrow strollers, all covered with rain and wind flaps, down the sidewalks, en route to day-care centers and schools, many of them sponsored by the state. Such programs are one of several policies that help French parents balance work and family. Day-care centers, called crèches, are subsidized by the state. If mothers can't find places in the state-run crèches, they share nannies and receive generous tax refunds that make having a nanny affordable. Preschools are free, and all day, for children as young as 3.

"Having children and working is highly valued in France," says Hélène Périvier, codirector of the gender program at the SciencesPo university in Paris and mother of three young children. In Germany, for example, women are frowned upon – stigmatized as "crows" – for wanting to work, she says. "It has a deep impact on society."

Generous state support for working mothers is widely endorsed by French women, but many argue that, having hailed from a historic pro-childbearing effort, French women haven't really promoted gender or social equality.

"Domestic labor remains women's domain, crèche places are more accessible to those in wealthy urban areas, and career compromise after parenthood remains largely a female sacrifice," says Simon Jackson, an English historian at SciencesPo.

Still, many wouldn't wish it away. Stephanie Lumbers has a toddler and is expecting another child this month. She returned to work in marketing when her first child was 5 months old and now shares a nanny with another family. "We have it better than most mothers," she says. Unlike many American women, who commonly say they struggle to balance home and work, she says no one in her circle of friends – though she concedes she is among a privileged circle – lists that balance as their major concern.

That isn't the only aspect of being a French woman that is worthy of envy. Stereotypes abound in movies and literature about the sense of style and beauty of French women. The bestseller "French Women Don't Get Fat" is a testament to that global fascination.

French professor Anne Deneys-Tunney, at New York University, says that she finds the US, where she has spent the last 20 years, to be a more egalitarian society for gender relations. American women have certain protections such as clear sexual harassment policies that are strictly enforced, yet it comes at a social cost, including a cultural tone that many French would find distasteful and too politically correct. The French want legal equality that doesn't come bound up in the inability to compliment women at work.

"Women are freer here, but on the other hand, it has destroyed a certain charm, an innocence and lightness of life," she says.

But that freedom can, at its worst, have a social cost. In July in the wake of the Strauss-Kahn case, for example, the country's female housing minister, Cécile Duflot, was subject to shouts and wolf whistles from the right-wing opposition as she prepared to address the national Parliament in a flowery but professional dress. The speaker of the chamber had to ask the male representatives to stop hooting at her.

Yet Ms. Duflot didn't shy away from responding. As she began her address to the chamber amid taunting from the opposition, she said, "Ladies and gentlemen representatives, but mostly gentlemen, apparently."

Strauss-Kahn affair a turning point

These scenarios are not unheard of. Women in France have less access to justice when it comes to sexual harassment. According to the French Ministry of Justice, about 1,000 complaints for sexual harassment are filed every year, but only a few dozen lead to sentencing.

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