PARIS — First there was Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who allegedly referred to women as "material," then catcalls in the French Parliament just because a female government minister wore a floral dress.
But when this month the French agriculture minister – in an interview about promoting gender equality – suggested that women couldn't get their heads around technical jobs, that was too much.
The prime minister of France – a country which produced feminist icons such as Joan of Arc and Simone de Beauvoir – has decided that his ministers need to go back to school for anti-sexism classes.
On Jean-Marc Ayrault's orders, the Equality Ministry has set up a series of 45-minute gender equality "sensitization sessions," during which ministers are being trained to identify sexism in daily life and taught how to avoid sexist stereotypes in political communication.
Organizers told The Associated Press that it's a full class, with all 38 ministers signed up or in the process of registering. In the interest of gender equality, the female ministers are going, too.
The goal, said organizer Caroline de Haas, is that ministers take time to think about sexism. "If you're not vigilant, de facto inequalities are created," she said.
De Haas said 80 percent of politicians interviewed on French TV and radio broadcasts are men. She said she wants to fight against the "illusion" that France "has almost achieved equality" between men and women. France is now trailing in an unimpressive 48th place on the Global Gender Gap equality list.
Earlier this month, in an interview with L'Express magazine, French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll sparked controversy by saying: "I've tried to promote women as much as possible, even though some of our dossiers are very technical."
Though Le Foll said his words were taken out of context – given that the interview was on the subject of gender equality – they nevertheless caused outrage and went viral on Twitter.
As far as the public is concerned, sounds like some ministers need instruction.
"I'm not proud, but it's good (the lessons are) happening," said Nicolette Kost, 33, in central Paris. "After all, at such a high level in French government non-sexist attitudes should just come naturally."
The lessons are "positive... since France is so far behind other European countries," said Edwige Bernard, 57.
Some ministers have already taken the training, which includes a slide show, such as Labor Minister Michel Sapin and Justice Minister Christiane Taubira. Taubira's office declined to comment about the minister's training.
It includes statistics about gender inequality in France, and points out how gender stereotypes are inscribed in French children from an early age.
One example de Haas noted: In stores, clothes for 18-month-old children are marked "pretty" and "cute" for girls, but "brave" and "cunning" for boys.
The anti-sexism training initiative comes rather unsurprisingly from Sweden, a country that tops the Global Gender Gap report list on male-female equality. In Sweden, toys are often unisex, and one Swedish kindergarten – in order to discourage gender stereotypes – has even forbidden or discouraged children to use the words "he" or "she."
France sees itself as the cradle of human rights and is progressive on some fronts, but has lagged behind on gender equality.
Under Prime Minister Alain Juppe in 1995, no one blinked an eye when French media named his 12 female ministers patronizingly the "Jupettes."
In July, French Housing Minister Cecile Duflot was the victim of hooting and catcalls in France's National Assembly, all for wearing a blue and white flowered dress.
The whistles did not cease for the entire time she spoke. The heckling didn't come from an unruly crowd, but from male legislators who later said they were merely showing their appreciation on a warm summer's day.
Former IMF chief Strauss-Kahn reinforced the stereotype and tarnished the image of French male politicians after he admitted conducting orgies and reportedly referred to women as "material" when planning for them.
French President Francois Hollande – whose partner is one of the only working French first ladies in recent times – has made equal gender representation in government a key part of his election manifesto. Half of his Cabinet members are women. And this summer the Socialist-led Parliament pushed through legislation that made anti-harassment laws in France more robust.
The lessons are "a good PR stunt by the Socialists," said Victoire Monnoyer, a 20-year-old student in Paris. "To know if it works, we'll just have to wait and see."
Thomas Adamson can be followed at http:/ /Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP
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