When he was elected president in May 2017, Emmanuel Macron set out the “Great Cause” of his mandate: the fight for equality between women and men in French society.
On 25 November, he gave a speech to detail his government’s equality policy, organised in three priorities: an educational and cultural push for equality, better help for victims of violence, and reinforcement of the country’s “repressive arsenal” (a fancy way of saying anti-harassment law may be strengthened). “It is our entire society that is suffering from sexism,” he declared, before observing a minute of silence in memory of the 123 women who were killed by their partner or ex-partner in France last year. He spoke of “the feeling of horror of shame” that came from listening to women speaking out about sexual harassment and abuse in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, regretted that many still don’t feel comfortable speaking out, and reminded the audience that a woman dies of domestic abuse every three days in France.
In doing so, he was setting a precedent, and an important one: when the president of France speaks of gender equality as a great cause, the world listens. “It was the first time that a French president said live on TV that violence against women are not acceptable in our country”, Caroline de Haas, a French feminist activist who founded the group Osez Le Féminisme, told the New Statesman. “This sets a standard. It has an impact on people’s behaviour, on the mobilisation of the society.”
But De Haas, like many other French feminists and organisations fighting against abuse and for equality, called bullshit on the president: there is no budget allocated to this “great cause”. Macron announced €420m for 2018 to be spent towards equality and said that “funds dedicated to fighting violence against women have already been increased by 13 per cent”. But it’s a bit more complex than that.
Taking a closer look at the planned budget, De Haas realised that the €420m figure was not simply allocated to fighting violence against women. In fact, only 15 per cent of this figure – around €65m – will really go towards preventing domestic abuse, she said.
“[Macron] is not lying when he speaks of €420m, but it’s for the whole policy on equality,” De Haas told me. “And everyone believed it was for the fight against abuse, because that was the day’s topic. They played on the ambiguity to make people believe that there was €420m on fighting abuse. It’s just not true.”
The €420m figure, she adds, seemed new but wasn’t – it was already included in the 2018 budget before the #metoo (#balancetonporc in French) wave. “There is no new funding”, she says.
She detailed her calculation, based on the government’s budget plan 2017 and 2018, on Twitter, writing: “Emmanuel Macron, [Secretary of State for Equality] Marlène Schiappa and the government are taking the piss out of us.” Schiappa responded on Twitter that De Haas was “manipulating and misrepresenting” Macron’s proposals.
Many other groups and activists share De Haas’s vision. “The president hasn’t understood what’s happening in the country,” said feminist Clara Gonzales. “Scattered measures, some echoing our demands, but without any funding to implement them…” Activist Laure Salmona, who noted that women’s support groups and associations fighting domestic abuse do not have sufficient funding to function, said: “It’s great to offer formation [on the topics of abuse] for educators, but how do we do that without money?” The lack of funding is especially significant when compared to the Spanish budget, which planned €1bn to fight violence against women. “No real increase in the budget for women’s rights… Unlike Spain’s 1 billion to fight domestic abuse”, tweeted the LGBT and women’s rights association Les effronté-e-s.
Macron was also criticised for using the word “denunciation”, not less than three times, to talk about women coming forward about abuse and harassment, which implies that victims may not be believed if they speak out. “Anyone who has been formed for half a day on the question of abuse will not speak about denunciation”, De Haas told me. “You address victims and what they go through… That’s proof he doesn’t really care.”
De Haas said that when the Weinstein scandal started a worldwide debate on sexual harassment, she hoped that the French government would step in with funding: “Can you believe it? The scope of the issue… And the government’s reaction? It’s discouraging.”
In a different situation, Macron’s budget mis-steps may have been better received and interpreted as a first step towards the delivery of his great promises. The problem is that, in just six months, he has already alienated many key groups on budget-related issues. This summer, he had a very public row with the army about cutting the military budget and cut housing aid for students, while the same feminist groups flagged that the budget for women’s refuges was being cut by 25 per cent. French people have learned to listen past Macron’s big, and long, speeches and look at the small print.
And so the main takeaway from Macron’s speech wasn’t the president’s historic announcement, but his failure to really address this “great cause” and follow-up with consequential funding.
“You can go lyrical about equality between men and women but if there isn’t €1 behind it to implement it, it won’t happen”, De Haas concluded.