Sunday, July 31, 2011

German Woman Leaving Paris Muses About What She Will Miss and What She Won't

Could there be any worse time to leave Paris?
asks Katrin Bennhold, a German working for the New York Times' International Herald Tribune offspring who indeed is leaving France (in spite of being six months pregnant) for a post in London.
On the long list of things to miss about France, the climate, public transport and generous amounts of vacation do of course feature prominently.

But, for this woman at least, none of that can beat a combination of free preschools, family allowances, tax deductions for each child, a paid, four-month maternity leave and to top it all off, an extended course of gymnastics, complete with personal trainer and electric stimulation devices, to get you and your birth canal muscles back into shape, courtesy of the taxpayer.

…I have another list, a much shorter one, of all the things I won’t miss about France: the overrated coffee, the smell of andouillettes, the “do not walk on the grass” signs in public parks and all the unnecessary traffic congestion due to cars piling into the intersection just as the light turns yellow. There are also the early-morning ticket controls in the Métro that in my experience seem to focus mostly on black and Arab-looking commuters.

But the No. 1 spot on this list is also occupied by something related to being a woman: A deep-seated machismo in everyday interaction that grated with me long before the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case made headlines.

Many French women appear to worry more about being feminine than feminist, and French men often display a form of gallantry predating the 1789 revolution. “Charming,” I thought, when I first arrived 10 years ago and an official in the Foreign Ministry scrambled to open every one of four doors in a very long, narrow corridor. But I soon tired of the unsolicited attention that young men sometimes heap upon women who are walking down the Champs-Élysées in a skirt.

France ranks 46th in the World Economic Forum’s 2010 gender equality report, lagging behind the United States, most of Europe, but also Kazakhstan and Jamaica. Women in France earn on average 26 percent less than men but do two-thirds of the housework.

As the historian Michelle Perrot put it to me a few months ago, “France may be Scandinavian in its employment statistics, but it remains profoundly Latin in attitude.”

And still, this is the only European country where I’ve routinely met successful businesswomen with three children and an enviable figure.