A piece in today’s Times by Adam Sage:
Marlène Schiappa may be young and relatively inexperienced but she is a star of President Macron’s cabinet.
Largely unknown when she became gender equality minister last year, Ms Schiappa has led government action against discrimination, sexual violence and street harassment. In doing so she has become a household name.
Yet Ms Schiappa, 35, is also a mother struggling to reconcile the conflicting demands of work and home life, as readers of her fiercely controversial new book are discovering.
The work, which has been denounced as unfeminist and undignified by Parisian critics, recounts the sense of culpability that she said haunts her for leaving her two daughters, aged 6 and 11, to go to the office.
“I think that guilt is an intrinsic part of motherhood because we are permanently faced with conflicting demands,” Ms Schiappa told The Times. “Whatever you do, there are moments when we are not with our children, and that makes us feel enormously guilty.”
Si Souvent Eloignée de Vous (So Often Far From You) consists of letters she wrote to her daughters, mainly on trains and planes, to explain why she was away from home and is very different from the policy-ridden works that French politicians usually publish.
In one passage she tells of her mortification at discovering that a government meeting is planned on the day of her daughter’s school play. After much hang-wringing, she decides to go to the play, only to be ordered to attend the seminar, which she does while thinking of her children.
Such feelings may be known to working mothers across the world, but Ms Schiappa’s detractors were appalled to see them put into print by a government minister.
In a country that has traditionally placed a barrier between public and private lives, commentators said it was unbecoming for Ms Schiappa to divulge personal details, such as using her children’s shampoo so that she is reminded of them every time she smelt her hair, or her feeling of plenitude as she read a book in bed on the day after giving birth for a second time, or her gloom at her temporary separation from her partner.
“Should a secretary of state write that?” asked Le Monde. “Write it, why not? But is it necessary to publish it?” said the critic of L’Obs, the news magazine who added that the book made her feel ill at ease.
Ms Schiappa may be the voice of feminism in Mr Macron’s cabinet, but her work has earned the wrath of feminists outside it. Some criticised her for explaining that she had instructed her daughters to tell her when they started menstruating before telling their father. Others expressed anger with her for extolling the benefits of falling in love and of having children. Neither was a feminist concept, said some of France’s most die-hard feminists.
Ms Schiappa brushed aside the criticism. “I recount my journey through life in the book and how that journey is a kind of apprenticeship and an apprenticeship of what it is to be a feminist.”
She also defended publishing details of her private life, saying that the book fitted with Mr Macron’s commitment to change France’s tired political system.
“That does not mean changing the faces and doing exactly what they did before,” she said, adding that she wanted to add a human face and concrete examples to a traditionally arid political system. “I have had feedback from people who . . . like reading about women’s issues and issues of maternity but who are not necessarily politicised.”
She added: “My goal is to make other mothers feel less guilty, and to try to feel less guilty myself — although I don’t necessarily manage that.”
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