The Slow Rebirth of Militant Feminism in France

Doris Salcedo, Untitled (1995).

November 24, 2018. Tear gas grenades are falling down on burning barricades on the Champs Elysées. Act II of the Yellow Vests movement (the Gilets jaunes] hit the headlines of every news channel. And yet, only a little more than a mile from the Champs Elysées, the largest feminist mobilization to happen in France in many years is taking place. Called by the “Nous Toutes” (All of us) movement, recently created with the aim to organize a national demonstration for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the action rallied around 30,000 people in Paris, 50,000 if we factor in the demonstrations outside of Paris. This mobilization was led by Caroline de Haas, a well-known feminist activist and former member of the Socialist Party, who resigned from her position at the Women’s Rights Ministry under the Hollande presidency. Her recent initiative sought to overcome the divisions within the feminist movement, by bringing every part of the movement to the table, thus marking a break with the practices of the most “traditional” feminisms, embodied by “Collectif National pour les droits des femmes” [National Association for the Rights of Women]. The rupture certainly occurred, if we compare this mobilization to those of previous years when, even in direct connection with the #MeToo movement, demonstrations hardly gathered more than 3000 people. 

Such a possibility for a renewal of feminist mobilizations must be understood in the context of a more generalized crisis of institutional feminism, itself generated by the crisis of the Socialist Party. While institutional feminists had strong allies in the ruling party during Hollande’s presidency, they have lost these privileged contacts with Macron’s administration, given that the new Women’s Rights State secretary, Marlène Schiappa, no longer meets with traditional women’s rights organizations, preferring to work with her own partners from liberal women’s networking groups such as the one around her former blog “Maman travaille” (Mom is working). Of course, this new mode of managing women’s issues is linked to a decline in public funding for women’s rights organizations, including organizations working with domestic and sexual violence victims. Thus, as traditional feminism seems to have far less to gain from the new government than before, they have accepted the challenge to do something new that could offer them “more” popular support. 

Yet, if there were doubtless more women in the streets than the years prior, we still cannot speak of a a real mass movement comparable to what has been happening in recent years in Argentina, Poland, Italy or Spain. The break with the tone of the previous mobilizations was only partial and symbolic. Indeed, the strategy of the organizers to bring a large number of women into the movement was to remove all the issues that could have been divisive or seen as too radical: thus, not a word on the rampant Islamophobia that has pervaded France for many years, not a word on capitalism as such, nor explicit support for trans people or sex workers, and no concrete demands at all, beyond simply a “stop to violence” slogan. As a consequence, the mobilization has been promoted by a number of liberal celebrities, and some of the most fashionable women’s podcasts, while the discussions among activists focused only on the organization, leaving out the necessary political discussion and debates. It seems that the lack of a radical agenda was the price to pay for a certain amount of publicity and “organizational efficacy.” That’s why another initiative called « Nous Aussi » (we too), gathered more than two thousands of people at the head of the demonstration, with radical claims including sex workers, trans people and non-white women, especially Muslim ones. 

Thus, it is still difficult to speak of a real renewal of the feminist movement, and the French feminist movement still did not really follow the global move towards a massive women’s strike for March 8. Organizations called only for a #15h40 strike, a strike beginning at 3:40 pm. The campaign explains: “With shopping, cleaning and children, we perform on average 20 hours of domestic labor a week. Our work is made invisible and devalued. Our wage is 26% below those of men. Hence, from 3:40 pm we work for free.” With such a focus on wage inequality, from which the authors draw the conclusion that women should stop working at 3:40pm, the call actually ignores what has been and still is one of feminism’s main issues: unwaged domestic labor. While the free nature of domestic labor is the necessary condition of capitalism’s good health and its ability to exploit women, and while the call mentions these “20 hours a week” of unwaged labor, it does not achieve the necessary articulation of both the public and the private sphere, and thus does not allow unwaged women to feel included in the action and in a capacity to join the strike. Yet, this call did not seem to aim at more than a symbolic action, as the unions, while officially involved in the campaign (they issued a strike warning for that day) did not seem to have specifically promoted the event in order to effectively encourage women workers to be on strike. 

Yet, in Paris, a women yellow vests group called to join the March 8 event, and invited feminist organizations to join them in a women’s contingent at the head of the weekly Saturday yellow vests demonstration. Unfortunately, the March 8th event hardly gathered more than one thousand people, and very few yellow vest women joined the #15h40 Strike. On the other hand, several feminist groups joined the March 9th march, but this was still a small initiative, as most of women participating in the yellow vests demonstration did not join this specific feminist contingent. Similar initiatives in other cities seem no to have had more resonance. Yet the symbolism was important, and certainly helped to counter apparent divisions arising from the supposed incompatibility of the demonstrations of November 24 when, except in a few cities, yellow vests protests and feminist demonstrations were considered as political projects that did not have anything in common. 

It is evident, however, that the exact opposite is the case. From the beginning, women have been very active in the yellow vests movement. While several journalists seemed surprised by women’s active participation in the movement, feminists and historians commented upon how women always had a fundamental role in revolutionary movements.

Beyond their participation alongside men in the streets and roundabouts, official women’s yellow vests groups have been organized early January in reaction first to extreme police violence. By organizing separate demonstrations on Sundays, women in the Gilets jaunes movement wanted to question, among heterogeneous demands, police practices, publicly asking whether or not the police would attack a women’s march. While this first step taken by women in the yellow vest movement was considered a timely contribution to the movement as a whole – rather than one based on their specific oppression as women – some of the women have continued to organize, discussing together their situation as precarious women who are struggling to make ends meet, with their specific issues around domestic abuse and childcare. 

This irruption of yellow vest women into the feminist sphere is an opportune moment, then, to seriously consider the possibility in France of a third wave of mass mobilizations led by working-class women. Indeed, we have taken part for the several last years in inspiring mobilizations of women in worsening labor conditions (hairdressers, cleaning workers, maids, nurses or sex workers), a great many of them successful. What unites these occupational sectors is that they are all “typical” female labor, and as such are part of paid social reproductive labor. Because these jobs are often continuous with the labor women do for free at home, to organize as workers in these jobs is to organize as women. And because these jobs are those which involve an experiential knowledge shared by most of working-class women, such struggles have the power to raise a huge number of women on their sides. 

While these inspiring mobilizations, such as the yellow vests demo, are coming from outside of the feminist movement, they have and hopefully will continue to strongly contribute to its necessary recomposition. Yet, the traditional feminist movement has already demonstrated for many years now its capacity to prevent more radical movements from disrupting its hegemonic position. The challenge for working-class women contributing through their struggles to this recomposition will thus be to keep an adequate balance between strategically using the benefits support from traditional feminist organizations and unions can offer them, and sustaining their capacity to initiate and be at the forefront of future actions. In order to ensure autonomy from parts of the movement more reluctant to this recomposition, working-class layers need to increase their capacity to raise a massive movement, and to draw inspiration from and coordinate with movements abroad – especially the calls to global strike from both productive and reproductive labor. With such an internationalist inspiration, and given the unprecedented opportunity that Macron’s presidency is giving to France’s working class to build new solidarities, the women’s movement has the chance to inject anti-capitalist and internationalist perspectives into the struggle, as decisive contributions to the processes of subjectivation that are already in motion.

Finally, such perspectives will have to be buttressed by a strong anti-racist commitment: women of color, and especially Muslim women, are constantly subjected to political harassment and affected by a relentless, Islamophobic media exposure that questions their right to wear a veil, and therefore their right to exist in the public sphere. Unfortunately, the traditional feminist movement has been complicit in this harassment, and has even strongly contributed to femonationalist policies that frame Islam as inherently opposed to women’s interests. If we are to participate in the construction of a new wave of feminism deeply rooted in the experiences of working-class women, and shaped by their interests and desires, then a principled internationalism will not be enough: racism inside the feminist movement will have to be strongly addressed. 

This article is part of a dossier entitled “New Dispatches from the Feminist International.”

Author of the article

is a feminist activist and former sex worker.