#OpérationRobe: confronting everyday sexism in France

In 2012, then-minister Cécile Duflot was cat-called in parliament. Last week, the dress she wore made a comeback in a new campaign.

Bérengère Sim
12 June 2017
Cecile Duflot in 2015.

Cecile Duflot in 2015. Photo: Lemouton Stephane/PA Images. All rights reserved.Almost five years ago, on 17 July 2012, Cécile Duflot approached the microphone inside France’s assemblee nationale – the lower house of parliament. At the time, the Green Party politician was minister of territorial equality and housing and she was about to respond to a question on the urban development of greater Paris.

But, before she could open her mouth, a cacophony of jeering and whistling erupted – not in response to the question, but to the blue-and-white summer dress she was wearing which was knee-length and with sleeves. It was cinched at the waist and lifted ever so slightly – like a salsa dancer’s dress during a tame spin manoeuvre – as she turned to face her colleagues.

“One of [the deputies] even shouted ‘go on, unbutton the dress!’” Duflot says in a new video made as part of the #OpérationRobe ("Operation Dress") campaign launched last week. In 2012, the speaker of the assembly had intervened and demanded his colleagues calm down. But the dress was not forgotten.

Rather, it was featured in an exhibition of clothes that have caused scandals, at the Musée des arts décoratifs in Paris. It was also part of Duflot’s re-election campaign as deputy of the capital’s 6th district, in which she pledged to fight sexism focusing on violence, education, and closing the gender wage gap.

And, though Duflot was eliminated in the first round of legislative elections on 11 June, her campaign has nonetheless reignited an important debate surrounding everyday sexism in France and French politics.

"It sparked a greater discussion on sexism in general.”

Every day last week, Duflot’s campaign team released a video of a woman wearing the dress. In one, Duflot explains:  “There was a controversy after the first ministerial council [in May 2012] because I had worn jeans. So, I decided to go shopping and buy clothes that would not cause any problems – I ended up buying this dress”.

“At the time, all I wanted was to sweep the affair under the rug. But when I saw the scale of the coverage and the controversy, it was my duty to discuss such a symbolic act,” she says, reflecting on the hypocrisy where women are judged no matter what they wear, and face sexist comments even before having the chance to express themselves.

“I think this story surpassed me; it evoked so many things for so many women, in such a powerful way – to have seen what happened and to have lived it themselves – that it sparked a greater discussion on sexism in general,” she concludes.

La Robe video from Cecile Duflot.

Cecile Duflot in one of the La Robe videos.In 2012, a centre-right parliamentarian told Le Figaro: “we did not jeer or whistle at Cécile Duflot, we admired her. She obviously changed her look, and if she doesn’t want us to be interested, then she shouldn’t change her look.” He added: “actually, maybe she put on that dress so that we wouldn’t listen to what she was going to say”.

Public displays of sexism are not unusual in French politics. Challenges, a weekly left-leaning economics magazine, has chronicled: in 2013, centre-right deputy Philippe Le Ray made clucking noises during Véronique Massonneau’s (also of the Green Party) intervention; in 2016, Laurence Roussignol, then-minister of families, children and women's rights, was jeered at while giving a speech on the wage gap between men and women.   

Last year, 17 former female government ministers from across the political spectrum made a public vow to expose harassment and abuse. 

Recently, Sibeth Ndiaye, press officer for Emmanuel Macron during his presidential campaign, wore a flowery dress and flat shoes to Macron’s inauguration in May 2017. Within minutes, the twittersphere asked: “wait, why isn’t she wearing heels?”

“It felt like something that belonged to a different era.”

In one of the #OpérationRobe videos, Chantal Galiana, 62, recalls that when Duflot was cat-called in parliament in 2012, “it made me think of what it was like in primary school, a long time ago. We have really always had a problem with how girls are dressed, we never bother the boys.”

In another, Camille Saillant, a 37-year-old estate agent says there is “a lack of education and a lack of maturity”. She continues firmly: “it is not for me to change my outfit to adapt to the level of maturity of whoever is opposite me”.

For Sarah Corporeau, a lawyer, “like many women of my generation, watching that video [of Duflot in 2012], I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t think it was possible, today, in France, that a deputy is jeered at. It felt like something that belonged to a different era”.

Women's rights demonstration in Paris 2017.

Women's rights demonstration in Paris 2017. Flickr/Jeanne Menjoulet. Some rights reserved. Elsa Labouret, a 25-year-old feminist activist in Paris, told me that the campaign was “important because nothing has changed”. She said, of Duflot: “She is a well-known politician and she isn’t shy when it comes to talking about sexism. For once, someone is doing something about it”.

Labouret added: “For women, it’s a never-ending war – we don’t have an ‘accepted’ outfit for work. It’s a constant battle. Duflot wore jeans, society criticised her; she wore a dress, they criticised her again. No one writes articles about the colour of Macron’s ties, do they?”

Kieran Pradeep, 26, from Northern Ireland but based in Paris, reacted to the campaign and the 2012 incident, with shock.

“Was that the first time someone wore a flowery dress in parliament?” he asked, surrounded by friends enjoying a summer evening in north east Paris. Pausing, he added: “her dress shouldn’t matter. It is shocking that this happened in 2012 and it is still relevant today”.

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