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Emmanuel Macron has made gender equality his “great cause” – except when it comes to funding it

Emmanuel is a feminist ally. A hero for equality. There's just one tiny problem: once again, feminists disagree.

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.”

Macron has campaigned on a feminist platform and promised to act on his pledges earlier this year. That he seemed to do so, De Haas says, was “very positive”.

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.


Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

Anchal Vohra
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A Syrian family froze to death fleeing the war. So why hasn’t the world noticed?

The family were only a couple of hours’ drive from the glitz and comfort of Beirut. Please note: this story contains a graphic image.

Aged just one-year-old, Yasser al-Abed was travelling towards safety with his family of 14. But the journey turned into a death trap. In total, 16 people, including six from the Abed family, froze to death in the mountains. They were just a couple of hours’ drive away from the glitz and comfort of Beirut.

The frozen bodies of the Abed family and their fellow refugees are a stark reminder that the conflict in Syria is not over. Not for those like the Abeds, whose neighbourhoods were destroyed during the assault on Islamic State, nor for the misery of those still living in the middle of a warzone.  

Half a dozen children are screaming in the packed, tiny room in the north Lebanese city of Tripoli, where I meet the surviving members of the Abed family. The adults sit on the carpet with fallen faces. The mood is bitter. 

Amal, an 18-year old mother, is hiding in a corner of the room, her face buried in her knees despite her three-year-old daughter nudging her for attention. Amal is Yasser’s mother. Her son was the youngest of the six to die.

Eventually, she pulls out her phone and runs her fingers through the picture of her boy. “This is all I am left with. I miss him very much,” she says. Her eyes well with tears.

The Abed family came from the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. The province had changed hands during the long conflict, falling to Islamic State in 2015 before being taken again by the Assad regime. Caught between airstrikes and extremists in the ground, up to 95,000 civilians were displaced by the fighting, according to an October UN estimate

In the Abed family’s case, their home was shelled in December 2017, leaving the family no choice but to seek safety somewhere else. For a month, they say, they stayed in a hotel in Damascus known as a collection point for Syrians hoping to leave the war-torn country. One day, they were approached by a smuggler who offered to escort them to Lebanon illegally.

Home to at least a million Syrian refugees, Lebanon started restricting access for more such cases in 2015. That has not deterred Syrians from trying to seek a safe haven, often endangering their lives a second time. Since December last year, 300,000 have fled Syria in renewed fighting on several fronts. The Abed family is one of them.

Desperate, they took the smuggler at his word. They decided to march in the middle of the night, braving the snow, the cold, and the violent winds.

After clearing immigration on the Syrian border, the smuggler sat them in a café and advised them to follow blinking lights emanating from a point on the mountain in the border area. He collected a sum of $1,500 for the group, told them it would be a short walk and left.

On the night of the journey, Yasser was in the arms of his aunt, Amal’s sister Abir. Seven months pregnant, Abir found it difficult to carry the infant. “The smugglers said it would be a 30 minute walk, but we walked all night,” she says.

The family followed the blinking lights as instructed and met three men. They discovered they weren’t the only ones to be transported but that a large gathering of 60-70 people would make the same journey. The three guides, possibly local shepherds, divided them into groups and they began their quest.

At some point in the night, the man leading Abir’s group disappeared. She was with her mother and some other family members, but deep in a winter storm, she became separated from the rest. Tired and lost in the dark, after hours of hard climbing, Abir succumbed to sleep. “When I woke up, everyone around me was dead,” she says.

Abir found her nephew Yasser lying still on the ice. His eyes were open, his face pale and his body tilted to the right. His sweater was labelled “Ferrari”. He had not survived the night.

His photograph, the snow encasing his lifeless face, reminded many of that of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old who drowned in the Mediterranean and whose picture after he washed up on a beach near Turkey shocked the world in September 2015. 

The image of Yasser and other Syrians, his face blurred. Source: Lebanese Civil Defense

Both Yasser and Alan were small children whose families were fleeing the war in Syria. Yet the response has been drastically different. Alan’s picture changed the nature of the debate about refugees in much of the Western world; Yasser’s has hardly received any attention.

When Alan died, it was the height of the refugee crisis, and hundreds of thousands of Syrians were knocking on the European door. By the time Yasser met his end this January, Islamic State was on the run, Assad was thought to be winning and the news cycle had moved on.

The reality is that the Syrian war isn’t ending, but flaring up anew, and Syrians are continuing to die.

Since December, several hospitals and clinics have been targeted by the Syrian regime in Idlib in northern Syria. Scores have been killed. They include civilians who were bussed out of Aleppo in December 2016 after rebels who had held the east of Syria’s second city surrendered. They died in Idlib instead.

In the rebel-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, 400 have been killed since late December, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights and a 100 of these are children. Thousands continue to live under a regime-imposed siege.

Both Idlib and Ghouta are in theory opposition-controlled “de-escalation zones” under terms of a ceasefire agreement negotiated between Turkey, which supports the rebels, and regime-backers Russia and Iran. The Assad regime is supposed to have given its assent, but has shown the rules little regard.

In August last year, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad’s media boss and close adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, told me that there is no doubt the Syrian government will attempt to regain all of Syria. “We have got Aleppo and now we are in Deir Ezzor, next we will go to Idlib and get back every part of Syria under the control of terrorists,” she said.

The Syrian regime has gone about eliminating all shades of opposition and regaining the country in a systematic manner. First, it cracked down on the original, democratically-minded protesters. With the moderates crushed, it could create a narrative of “Assad versus the extremists”. Then, it used the fight between regional and world powers against IS to its advantage. Having won time with the four de-escalation zones, it focused on reasserting dominance in major financial and resource-rich regions. Now strengthened, it is targeting the opposition in these zones, including the civilians stuck among the rubble.

Assad’s blood-stained track record shows he is unlikely to stop while he is winning, which means more death, more destitution, more debris and displaced Syrians becoming refugees.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s hostility towards the Kurds and America’s support for them has put two Nato allies on opposite sides. And in the south west of Syria, two regional rivals, Iran and Israel, are engaged in a stand off after an Iranian drone was intercepted flying over Israeli territory. The contested border region of the Golan Heights, up until now dorman, could potentially become a newly active battlezone. 

In short, the theatre of war in Syria has expanded, not contracted. And both living in the country and leaving it will continue to be a death trap for ordinary families like the Abeds. 

The family members had suffered from the social injustices imposed by the regime for all thier lives. When Islamic State took over, their problems magnified. Amal and Abir couldn’t leave the house, and Shihab, Yasser’s grandfather, lost his job as a TV repair mechanic because IS banned watching it. But after losing their home and belongings in the war and half of their family in the subsequent attempt to flee, they wonder if they were better off living under IS. 

Losing Yasser makes Amal want to return to Syria. She came to Lebanon looking for a new home and safety but the sorrow of her son’s death has swallowed her. She craves the surroundings she knows.

Shihab blames himself for asking the family to escape. He wonders had they not, may be his grandson would still be alive.

As he received condolences from relatives, he said: “Life under IS was difficult but there was no war. Our house was only bombed when the regime started clearing them up.”