French ministers get anti-sexism lessons

Last updated 16:36 27/10/2012

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Ministers in France's new Socialist government are attending anti-sexism courses with presentations on stereotyping, inappropriate language and tips on how to avoid gaffes.

The hour-long classes, which also cover wage disparity and domestic violence, were the brainchild of Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, head of the newly recreated Women's Rights Ministry and also the government's official spokeswoman.

The sessions are part of an effort to weed out casual sexism in politics in a nation with a tradition of ignoring the occasional pestering of female subordinates by men in power.

Allegations over the conduct of Socialist politician and ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's triggered a soul-searching debate in France last year.

He was days away from announcing he would run for the presidency when police arrested him in New York after a hotel maid alleged he had tried to rape her. New York prosecutors later dropped the charges.

Wolf-whistles in parliament at a female minister in the new government added to concerns some coaching may be needed.

"The ministers have loved it," a government source said of the course. "They're coming up with ideas on where and how they can put it into practice."

In one session, broadcast on French television, Social Economy Minister Benoit Hamon is seen analysing stereotypes in a recruitment advert for male and female drivers.

"Thanks to you this man can go to the football or a restaurant whenever he wants... Thanks to you this woman can pick up her children straight after work," the poster reads.

A dozen ministers have attended, including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, and 26 more are signed up.

"For those already aware of the issues, it's good to hear them again. For those who aren't, it's especially useful," said a source close to Moscovici, a former ally of Strauss-Kahn.

Socialist President Francois Hollande has sought to set a new tone, appointing the same number of female as male ministers for the first time in French history.

France now ranks ahead of Britain and the United States in terms of female representation in parliament, with the share of women rising to 27 percent in last year's legislative election, from 19 percent previously, but sexism remains a problem.

Housing Minister Cecile Duflot once drew wolf-whistles when she wore a knee-length flowery dress to parliament, and former sports minister Chantal Jouanno has said she avoided wearing skirts altogether for fear of attracting smutty comments.

Many were shocked by clumsy reactions by public figures to Strauss-Kahn's arrest. One left-wing commentator dismissed the charges as a "troussage de domestique", a reference to the trysts noblemen often had with servants.

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A blunder by Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll also suggested there was much work to be done ending stereotypes.

"Out of 15 people in my cabinet, seven are women. I've tried to promote women as much as possible, even though the subjects are very technical," Le Foll told French magazine L'Express.

- Reuters

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