From fake beards to sweeping new laws, French feminism is lively and visible

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French direct-action group La Barbe poses, beards and all, after one of its actions. (La Barbe)

On June 25, four men sat behind a table on a stage at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris. The subject of the symposium was “Freud, a European spirit,” and the audience listened in silence as the panelists offered their thoughts on the topic. But, then, a disturbance. Nine women stood up and walked onto the stage, calmly lining up behind the men. Each wore a fake mustache and beard and carried a black sign that read, “La Barbe.” One approached a microphone and began to speak.

La Barbe, meaning “beard” in French, is a French feminist direct action group that interrupts high-level meetings to draw attention to the lack of women in decision-making positions in every sector of society. On that Wednesday afternoon, they were calling attention to gender inequality among psychoanalysis experts. Organizers estimate that the group has staged about 150 interruptions since its creation in 2008. Started in Paris, it now has chapters in cities throughout France, as well as in countries including Australia, Denmark and Mexico.

The premise is simple: La Barbe’s organizers draw attention to masculine domination by donning fake beards in situations where women are absent or underrepresented. They then read a statement in which they sarcastically congratulate their target on so successfully supporting men.

“We play a lot with the media,” explained Michèle, the founder of La Barbe’s group in Toulouse, the fourth largest city in France.Our manner of action, it’s already original. Our strategy is humor. That’s rare in activist associations. That strikes society.”

Estelle, a member of the Toulouse group, added, “It seems to me that it’s also a way to answer the critique that feminists don’t have humor, that they’re angry, frustrated, mean. We show the opposite.”

Both women requested that their last names not be published, both because anonymity is a key element of La Barbe’s actions and because the group’s members have faced legal charges on the rare occasions that their interruptions have been met with aggressive security.

In France, where women have only had the right to vote since 1944, gender equality now exists on paper but has not yet altered public consciousness or reached most offices, bedrooms or streets. A few high-profile events have made this abundantly clear over the last decade: In 2007, Ségolène Royal, the country’s current Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, ran for president representing the Socialist Party. Her campaign illuminated the drastic difference in how the media treats women and men, and she went on to lose the election to Nicolas Sarkozy. Then, in 2011, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and 2012 presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of sexually assaulting a maid in a New York City hotel room. The charges were eventually dropped and the French media was largely sympathetic to him, but the case brought to light just how little laws supporting economic equality have done to breakdown patriarchy in France — especially since, in the months that followed this event, a series of women came forward with their own stories of being sexually assaulting by Strauss-Kahn and other powerful men.

This month, however, efforts by a feminist collective called Féministes en Mouvements have resulted in a promising step forward: On August 5, France passed a sweeping new law promoting gender equality that addresses issues including equal pay, paternity leave, abortion access, and support for domestic violence survivors together instead of as isolated problems. Feminist activists say that this is the first time sexism is being addressed as a system of inequalities.

While high-visibility actions, like those taken by La Barbe, may have aided in calling attention to the need for structural shifts like this most recent legislation, the direct-action group sees their work as limited to calling out the problem. “We are not a traditional feminist association that finds solutions,” said Michèle. “The foundation of La Barbe is to demonstrate the unjust representation of women in all situations of power: economic, cultural, scientific, athletic, media-centered. This is the goal, uniquely. It’s only this. We are different than other feminist collectives or associations. We demonstrate only this.”

In other words, their highly visible direct actions have succeeded in bringing attention to feminist organizing and gender inequality, but they are not the ones doing the long-term work of organizing campaigns to tangibly improve the lives of women in France.

That’s where other groups, such as Osez le féminisme, which means “Dare feminism,” come in. Founded in Paris in 2009, the association now has 20 branches throughout France, with additional branches in Switzerland and Belgium. It consists of a board of 50 people who plan its many campaigns and organize training weekends for its approximately 1,500 members, although not all are active participants. Their average age is between 25 and 30.

“It’s how we are known: ‘Osez le féminisme, they are young,’” said Claire Serre-Combe, an Osez le féminisme organizer and spokesperson. She first became involved with the group three years ago when she posted a comment on Vie de meuf, a blog started by Osez le féminisme for women to write about everyday experiences with sexism. She describes the group’s overarching aim as first raising awareness of inequalities and then creating concrete demands to combat them.

The organization’s founders were members of the Socialist Party, but it is not connected with the party and its members have a variety of political identities. Officially, the group identifies itself as progressive and works on campaigns that range from online petitions to ban sexist advertisements to lobbying local politicians to create more spots in child care centers to educating women about what qualifies as harassment. Recently, Osez le féminisme also began working with other progressive groups, particularly anti-racist groups, in order to built a broader resistance to France’s extreme-right party, National Front, which has been gaining support in recent years and won a majority of France’s 74 seats in the European Parliament elections in May.

Since 2009, the association’s successes have been tangible. In 2011, they won a campaign to remove questions that identified women’s marital status on administrative forms and, as part of the Féministes en Mouvements collective, pressured the government to create a Ministry of Women’s Rights in 2012. They are now organizing a campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation.

La Barbe and Osez le féminisme have partnered on a couple of actions when their aims overlapped, but they are an unlikely team. While the former is spontaneous and action-oriented, the latter is structured and focuses on using every available avenue, including legal action and interacting — positively or negatively, depending on the situation — with politicians.

“[La Barbe] is really focused on power and places of power: boards of directors of very big firms, political parties, etc.,” explained Serre-Combe. “They are really ironic, and they come and congratulate all the men for the power they obtained… We are more focused on the long-term strategies.” Yet, she says these divergences are not necessarily a problem for the broader movement. “It is important to have differences because it demonstrates the vitality and the diversity of the French feminist movement,” she said.

Serre-Combe’s description of La Barbe alludes to a larger question: Does only addressing the absence of women in places of power help the majority of women? Despite its militant tactic, La Barbe does not have a political ideology and refuses to critique its targets for anything other than the genders of its leaders. In other words, they address sexism from the top-down and criticize each organization’s internal structure without first questioning whether its larger function is one worth engaging with. Without the work of associations such as Osez le féminisme, La Barbe’s actions would begin and end with their humorous, attention-getting displays. There would be no one to take that attention and use it to politicize more people or to organize campaigns, no one to show that additional steps can be taken or to connect inequality to the need for feminism.

There are, of course, also benefits to La Barbe’s strategy. Women come and go as they please within the group, attending as many or as few actions as they like and choosing whether or not to participate in the collective process of writing the statements that are read during actions. Beyond that, there is no organizing needed. It remains open to all at all times. Osez le féminisme, on the other hand, requires a huge time commitment from its active organizers who attend local branch meetings and individual meetings for the campaigns that they are involved with, as well as training weekends twice a year.

Osez le féminisme’s main focus is to reach as many people, especially women, as possible. The goal is to change their mentality so that they start labeling their everyday experiences of inequality as sexism and their fight against those inequalities as feminism. The challenge, according to Serre-Combe, is to make public consciousness catch up to the law. Implicit in this response is that rooting out patriarchy is possible through existing political institutions.

French feminism is lively and visible, thanks in large part to La Barbe’s valuable actions, but those actions do not always directly relate to the daily lives of most women. Osez le féminisme aims to illuminate the links between the two, and they do this through long-term strategies and short-term campaigns, large public rallies and the small organizing meetings that make the rest possible. “If you want, you can get involved every night and have a meeting every night,” said Rima El Badia, an Osez le féminisme organizer, before inviting me to tag along to the working-group meeting she was going to after our interview.

She explained that they usually meet in someone’s home or in a park to avoid excluding those who cannot pay for a drink, but tonight it looks like it might rain so we head to a bar after meeting a few other women, one with her daughter in tow, at the Place de la Bastille. They looked at potential logo designs for the campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation and debated which subway trains and stations would make for its best destinations. The logo sketches are the creation of Madeleine, a 21-year-old student, and they all depict a variation of an approaching subway car with “#TakeBackTheMetro” written somewhere on its surface.

I asked her why she joined Osez le féminisme. “Because I’m a feminist,” she replied, as if nothing could be simpler.

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