Are Migrant Women Spurring a New Wave in French Feminism?
IN LATE NOVEMBER 2018, tens of thousands of women marched through the streets of France protesting against sexual and sexist violence. It was the country’s largest feminist demonstrations since the 1970s, and a sign of new energy in French feminism—in part due to, and influenced by a younger generation of activists for whom capitalist exploitation, racist humiliation and heterosexist injunctions are three heads of the same beast. It’s a new wave of feminism in a country whose elites glorify cultural uniformity in the name of unity.
Over the past few decades, increasing numbers of women and gender minorities from Europe’s former colonies have pushed at the shape of French feminism. France counts more than 7 million descendants of immigrants (i.e., French people whose parents were born abroad with a foreign citizenship), representing over 11% of the population. Most are younger than 30 and live in the country’s urban and suburban areas. Over half have recent family roots in Africa and Asia. Together with people from French departments and territories in the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean, these citizens form a population whose presence in “metropolitan France”—as its hexagon-shaped chunk of Europe is referred to—is undetachable from the country’s colonial past, and present.
Prominent feminist organizations like the Réseau Classe/Genre/Race, Lallab, or MWASI, intentionally avoid separating women or gender minorities from their status as ethnic or religious minorities, or as descendants of lands once colonized by France. Their approach is resolutely intersectional—meaning they view emancipation of women as conditional not only on the dismantlement of heterosexism, but also of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and imperialism.
This outspoken intersectionality is emblematic of a critical contribution migration has made on feminist struggles in France: namely the increased movement of people and ideas from different continents through academic exchanges, conferences, and international coalition building. Indeed, the movement of students, activists, and academics from (and to) the global South, but also throughout the English-speaking world, has enabled a breadth of concepts, frameworks and topics to permeate intellectual conversations in France. For example, the term “intersectionality,” which was first coined by American academic and lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, is now commonly used by some feminists to describe their framework. These new feminisms are internationalist and tie their struggle together with those of activists beyond the country’s borders, from a horizontal rather than vertical perspective.
This newly found access to feminist thought from postcolonial territories questions the ideological supremacy of Franco-French intellectuals. Hence, feminist activists now regularly refer to writers like Paulette and Jeanne Nardal, who hail from Martinique, Senegalese activist Caroline Diop, or Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi.
The rise of feminist movements from postcolonial activists has led to a questioning of Franco-French thinking as a panacea for emancipation. As a result, universalist feminism—whose adherents believe that there is a single framework for women’s emancipation, a one-size-fits-all model of freedom—is losing speed. For example, Elisabeth Badinter, a wealthy Parisian heiress and staunch universalist feminist, lamented in a 2016 interview that “today a part of the left is impregnated with the idea that all cultures and traditions are worth each other and that we have nothing to impose them.” Badinter places French culture on a pedestal, as an ideal milieu for women’s emancipation, and demands near complete assimilation into it.
This explains the tensions between universalists like Badinter and the new generation of feminists, for whom equality of condition requires a profound transformation of France’s political and economic system. They envision their struggles and eventual liberation collectively, and refuse to single out one single system of subjugation as a main target. As Fatima Ouassak, founder of Réseau Classe/Genre/Race and Front de mères, wrote in a 2018 op-ed, “From our point of view, there is only one feminism, needless to specify that it is antiracist, intersectional, anti- imperialist, etc.” They do not want a seat at the table of power, they want to dismantle it.
Such aspirations were bound to pit them against universal feminists, whose supporters regularly put the label communautariste on organizations that recognize the social realities of race, religious affiliation, or sexual orientation and gender identity. The word has a peculiar weight in French society, where it often carries a negative connotation, signifying potential, and willful, fragmentation of the nation. For universalist feminists, the danger in talking about their lived realities as Muslim women, or women of African descent, is in a similar potential fracturing of feminism. Interestingly, those same universalist feminists understand the necessity of including gender as a lens of critical analysis, but are indignant about the use of strategic essentialism if it questions the legitimacy of their domination. Their vision of emancipation has simmered in a specific historical context and material condition, meaning that it isn’t neutral or objective: what does that kind of feminism, one that reproduces social domination, do for the collective liberation of women and gender minorities?
Badinter’s cultural bias is especially visible in her defenses of powerful Western men accused of sexual misconduct, especially against women of color. She called Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas a “witch hunt” in 1991. Twenty years later, she vehemently defended Dominique Strauss Kahn after Nafissatou Diallo, a New York City hotel maid, accused the former IMF head of rape. Badinter’s defense of those alleged sexual predators relied on stereotypical depictions of French and North American gender relations; Americans were a “puritanical” people who did not understand the complexity and tension inherent in seduction.
And voila an explanation for why working class, immigrant women seem to have been absent from established French feminist outlets until the early 2000s. For decades, the only sexist and sexual violence against them that was talked about had to come from their fathers, brothers, or neighbors (who were especially sexist because of their “backwards culture”). The violence they faced due to a combination of their race, religion, class, and gender was dismissed—and continues to be—by many institutionalized feminist movements. 75% of anti-Muslim attacks are against women, yet the issue of Islamophobia still isn’t consensual among feminist currents. Badinter, who finds it intellectually honest to compare wearing the hijab to chattel slavery, has called for feminists to stop being afraid of accusations of Islamophobia.
Sara Farris, who teaches Marxist feminism at Goldsmiths at the University of London, calls the unholy confluence of feminism, white supremacy and the demands of neoliberal service economies “femonationalism.” Which brings us to the third way that migration has impacted feminism in France: its weaponization by anti-immigrant, right wing forces. For example, in the weeks following the 2016 New Year’s Eve attacks on women in Cologne, Germany—which were attributed to, in particular, recently arrived migrants— Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front, invoked the need to protect women as justification for closing borders. “That barbarism can be exercised again against women, because of a senseless migration policy, fills me with fear,” she proclaimed.
Like other European countries, France has responded to increased migration with tighter work and residency restrictions, and increased deportations. Unlike the children and grandchildren of immigrants, who, for the most part, hold French citizenship and have grown up in France, recent migrants face an even more hostile political landscape. France and neighboring states have conditioned residency rights for foreigners on insertion into a job market scarred by deindustrialization. At the same time, European governments have been responsive to the demands of sectors that serve the affluent, and which rely on migrant labor to do jobs that their own citizens don’t want to do. For example, in 2009—at the height of the financial crisis—the right wing coalition governing Italy decided to regularize solely those migrants serving as domestic workers.
Although 44% of immigrant women in France hold advanced degrees, state agencies systematically orient them towards jobs that are in high demand, but are generally low-skilled positions, like cleaner or nurse’s aide. This is the flipside of the oft-celebrated rise of women in the professional world. Bourgeois white women are often free to “break the glass ceiling” because another woman, usually a woman of color, wakes up at dawn to clean her office or take care of her elderly parents.
These women of color are currently leading major social movements, but frequently to the indifference of the universalist feminists who vowed to save them. Like the cleaners of the Park Hyatt-Vendôme hotel in Paris, who have been on strike for over two months to demand an end to subcontracting, which keeps their wages lower than at competing luxury hotels. A similar situation confronts employees of ONET, a company subcontracted to clean train stations, workers at the BNF (the national library) and some public health facilities.
When femonationalists talk about emancipating Muslim and/or black and brown women from sexist cultures, they all too often seem to envision those women melting into the French républicain mold in a docile, subservient way. Worse, when women whose problems have been dismissed or ignored decide to organize on their own terms, the backlash they face is shockingly violent. For instance, several Lallab activists were subjected to ferocious cyber harassment in 2017, including rape and death threats. Though secular in nature, Lallab itself has been described by both right and left-wing commentators as “dangerous.”
In August 2017, Celine Pina, a former Socialist Party representative from a Paris suburb, penned a statement in the French daily Le Figaro accusing Lallab of being an antechamber of Islamism, and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood no less. Lallab sued for libel a few months later. Raphael Enthoven, a philosophy professor with a large Twitter following (he also has a child with his former partner, Carla Bruni) has been publicly critical of Lallab for not denouncing female genital mutilation or the imprisonment of women in Iran for not wearing the hijab. In fact, Lallab has published articles condemning both of these things. Furthermore, Lallab is a French organization focused on France; can’t it be enough for its critics when Muslim women in countries like Iran speak out about the various forms of violence and discrimination they face, rather than demanding that Muslim women in France speak for them?
Liberté, égalité, fraternité has always been more of a challenging ideal than a reality. This new wind coming from the margins highlights the shortcomings of universalist feminism. Focusing in on the lived experiences of people concerned with a specific issue is more important than any abstract writing. By questioning the basis for gendered oppression, feminism provides an opportunity to examine which mechanisms hinder our fulfillment as human beings. However, bar systematic re-assessment, feminist ideals can become powerful instruments in the realization of a nefarious agenda.
— This article appears in
Are We Europe #3: Uprooted