French patriarchy

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Shombit Sengupta | Updated: Mar 31 2013, 06:07am hrs
Nostalgia enveloped Jose when we met for dinner at his home in Paris after 20 years. He was my colleague at the French design firm, we worked as art directors towards the end of 1970s. Weve became extremely close friends. Ive learnt a lot from Jose. We heartily recalled our young Parisienne days, the ideas we shared at work, in art, music, and life in general, then chronologically arrived at present times, including my latest series in this column on women. Thats when Joses wife Christiane laughed ironically saying that if France was not patriarchal, Id never have met Jose.

After nearly 34 years, I discovered from Christiane how male dominated the French workplace can be.

Jose and Christiane studied at the same art college in Paris. The firm I was working sent a vacancy requirement to the art college, and the college sent Christiane. But the firm refused to take her saying they were looking for a male candidate. Later, Jose came to know that just one woman was working there, and in their speculation, if another woman came, there would be a clash. Christiane told Jose to take this opportunity. Jose, of course, got the job easily. So Christiane smiled saying its fortunate that Jose went to work there instead of her, otherwise Id never have met Jose. True enough, but this displayed naked discrimination against women.

In sharing this flashback, many other experiences also fleshed out. Jose narrated how being the only son in his family, he saw and experienced great privilege as opposed to his two sisters. After finishing a family meal, it was taken for granted that he could just leave the table. But the ritual his sisters were compelled to follow was to clean the table and wash the dishes.

Christiane came from a farming family in Southwest France. In her 1960s childhood, she remembers that her grandfather was all pervasive, the total boss of the family. Handling the familys money, he was the sole decision maker. Her parents and her grandmother worked in the farm all day, tending animals and doing physical labour required to generate livelihood. Christiane used to see that after walking barefoot in the fields as was his habit, her grandfather would always ask his daughter-in-law to wash his feet. Christianes mother also supported with the farming job from morning to night, but she was not entitled to any pocket money. Christianes mother and grandmother didnt have the courage to revolt, but they always encouraged Christiane to go for a job where she could independently earn money. This is the way Christiane could leave her French village home, 700 km away and come to Paris for further studies in an art college.

Since the 1968 revolutionary movement, the social situation in France has changed dramatically. Along with students and working classes, the status of women acquired a new recognition. For example, another friend in the Ardishe region narrated that before 1965, in her village with a population of just 1,500, she was among two women who studied upto Baccalaureate, the school-leaving degree. Children went to school from ages six to 14 only, there was no pre-primary education. Most girls would tend to domestic chores and become farm helpers while the men joined factories. In 1975, the Veil Law allowing abortion rights to women was introduced by Simone Veil, Frances health minister, after much opposition from male Parliamentarians. This facilitated a liberal approach towards male-female partnerships.

The patriarchal system had long suppressed French women. Today, when women are breaking free and society is not casting aspersions on their desire for liberty, they are facing different kinds of logistics. A large number of girls prefer to stay in live-in relationships rather than get married. They are afraid to marry because of divorce hassles; an unconfirmed social understanding is that two out of three marriages end up in divorce. Divorce is such a messy and expensive court procedure that everyone wants to avoid it. Divorced women would rather live alone, even if they start a new relationship with a new man. A very common situation you now find is a woman living alone with her children. But not all her children are from the same father, nor are the children necessarily born within wedlock. At the time of the couples separation of concubinage, which is what living together is called in French, the judge at the court decides which parent will pay how much for the childs upkeep depending on their economic situation. The judge also assigns visit rights to the parent the child does not live with.

Social acceptance of anti-Catholic ways such as abortion, divorce and illegitimate children is giving a new face to Catholic France. In fact, the First Family epitomises the new social mores: the President has four children out of wedlock and lives in concubinage, with a woman whos divorced twice, and not the mother of his children. Clearly, French women are taking their own relationship decisions. Yet its a double-edged freedom because psychologically and socially, women ask for and take responsibility for childrearing while the men are free to co-habit, planting seeds in different gardens.

Shombit is an international consultant to top management on differentiating business strategy with execution excellence (www.shiningconsulting.com)