Liberté, Égalité… Fraternité? The Problem With France’s National Motto

BELatina Latinx Liberté Égalité Fraternité

Two centuries and so much after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the idea of the French nation as one raised by progress and equality has been so rooted in the collective unconscious that little is known about its idiosyncrasy — until you live here.

In the world’s imagination, France is the country of cheese, good wine, poster streets, berets and cigarettes, literature, and Zidane. But underneath the tourist stereotypes, there is a complicated socio-cultural fabric that is unable to break away from its centuries of history, while it struggles to make its way into a new century that seems to be too big to fit.

The French people know about famine and lost crops, they know about centuries-old wars and the drowning kicks of an empire founded on the ego of a small man; France, like few countries in the world, seems to have seen it all.

And yet, at a time when the paradigm shift is digital and painless, the knotted roots of conservatism show their teeth and bring out the other side of the Frenchman — that which can no longer be disguised among baguettes and liters of Côtes du Rhône.

On 5 July, the Elysée Palace announced to the country the composition of its new government, which includes the appointments of Gérald Darmanin as Minister of the Interior, despite an ongoing investigation for alleged rape, and Eric Dupond-Moretti as Minister of Justice. Both have distinguished themselves on several occasions by their positions against sexual assault movements.

Since then, the streets of all French regions have been filled with angry women who cannot believe the cynicism of Emmanuel Macron’s government and the slap in the face of a country where 12 percent of women have been either raped or suffered attempted rape.

This adds up to some 250,000 women a year in a population of 66 million.

In recent years, eight out of ten French women have suffered some form of sexual assault or assault in the street or on public transportation. Thirty-two percent of women report being inappropriately groped by a passer-by or passenger, 29 percent report sexual touching and 8 percent report rape. More than one in four women (28 percent) have also dealt with an exhibitionist — including the writer of this note.

Overall, 76 percent of women report experiencing these harassing situations on the street, compared to 74 percent on public transit. Sexual assault, on the other hand, is more frequent on public transit: one in three women (38 percent) has already been sexually assaulted on public transit, compared to one in five (21 percent) on the street.

Consequently, those demanding Darmanin’s resignation were told by the government that the complaint against the new interior minister “was not an obstacle” to his appointment, even specifying that the judicial procedure was “in the right direction,” according to the daily Le Monde.

“There are investigations, they are carried out, and that is normal, we are in a state of law, but we cannot go any further, considering that, ultimately, because there are investigations, there would be crimes, an impossibility to exercise in a government,” said Mr. Attal. “I fully accept this appointment, [Gérald Darmanin] is entitled like everyone else to the presumption of innocence,” added Prime Minister Jean Castex on Wednesday morning on BFM-TV.

“Appointing Gérald Darmanin, a man accused of rape, as France’s first policeman, and Eric Dupond-Moretti, a notorious anti-feminist, as the Guardian of the Seals, is completely unthinkable,” reacts Céline Piques, spokesperson for the association Dare to Be a Feminist! “These are two representatives of the police and the justice system, two key institutions on the path of victims of sexual violence.”

Piques bitterly recalls the words of Emmanuel Macron when he came to power, who called for an “exemplary Republic,” and his choice to make equality between women and men the great cause of the five-year term. Marlène Schiappa, in charge of implementing the policy of defending women’s rights, became, thanks to the reshuffle, Minister Delegate for Citizenship, under the leadership of Gérald Darmanin.

“I’m surprised, it’s amazing to see the contempt,” says Caroline De Haas of the Nous Toutes collective. “Until now, Macron has had a polite and neutral disregard for women. Now, we are moving towards an aggressive and militant disregard. It’s been a long time since we had a clearly anti-feminist government.”

Machismo in language

The French government’s sexist displays come as no surprise to anyone. Far from being a romantic language — as well as being profoundly difficult to learn — the French language is a reservoir of the endogenous machismo that can be found on the country’s streets.

The famous actress Noémie de Lattre, known for her extensive career in the French theatre and on the small screen, published her play Un homme sur deux est une femme (One man in two is a woman) in 2016, but it went viral in networks in 2019 after a TEDTalk that explained how, from the national motto to professions, French is a language that perpetuates machismo.

“It’s not easy being something you can’t even name,” said de Lattre, underlining how the same self-corrector of smartphones does not recognize the feminine “actress” in French.

The same goes for words like “victorious,” which for the actress is an example of how “the masculine prevails over the feminine” in the language of Voltaire.

“When I was a little girl and I was told that, what I heard was: ‘My darling, the male is stronger than you. He’s got the power over you, he’s got the right to take you, and you’ve lost in advance.’”

For the apologists of history and respect for century-old grammar, the actress has some news: “The grammatical peculiarities that I have just mentioned are not at all random. They owe everything to sexism.” De Lattre recounts how the “phallocratic males” decided in the 17th century that the male gender in the French language is more “reputable and noble” than the female because the male is inherently superior.

Although the epistemological lesson of the actress seems to be an attempt to spin fine in matters that would have no impact on everyday life, they are much of the macho echo heard in the street.

This diachronic exercise shows how in France the genre has been built according to strict structures and laws established by both etymology, the French Academy, and the General Delegation of the French Language, all historically governed by men.

The book Femme, j’écris ton nom… Guide de féminisation de la langue française (now GFF, 1999) recounts how, until the 16th century, the French language had little difficulty in feminizing all trade names, even “noble” ones, which had to be feminized because a woman practiced them. 

Then, in the 17th and 18th centuries, feminization was ignored, only to reappear timidly in the 19th and 20th centuries and continue to this day, at least for the “small crafts.”

It was not until February 2019 that the French Academy finally took official action around the feminization of language, revealing names of professions, titles, ranks, and functions for those who were beginning to accept women. 

“Sexism creates a language to take root,” de Lattre adds in her monologue. “It’s not a question of feminizing language, but of de-masculinizing it.”

And where is the motto?

Amid all De Lattre’s historical and linguistic explanation, it is then logical that the French motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” also imposes an absolute that does not allow for its feminine, “sorority.”

François Fénelon’s idea at the end of the 17th century — the same century in which, according to De Lattre, the language was masculinized by will — the notions of “liberty,” “equality” and “fraternity” took on that romantic air that the French Revolution would transform into a battle cry.

In a December 1790 speech on the organization of the National Guard, Maximilien Robespierre argued for the words “The French People” and “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” to be written on uniforms and flags, but his proposal was rejected.

From 1793, the Parisians, who would soon be imitated by people of other cities, painted the following words on the facades of their houses: “Unity, the indivisibility of the Republic, liberty, equality or death.” But they were soon asked to delete the final part of the sentence.

This slogan fell into disuse under the Empire, like many revolutionary symbols. It reappeared during the 1848 Revolution marked by a religious dimension: priests celebrated the “Brotherhood of Christ” and blessed the trees of freedom that were planted at that time. When the 1848 Constitution was drafted, the motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” was defined as a “principle” of the Republic.

Discarded in the Second Empire, this motto finally prevailed in the Third Republic, although some opposed it, including the supporters of the Republic: solidarity was sometimes preferred to equality, which implied a leveling of society, and the Christian connotation of “fraternity” was not accepted by all.

The motto was incorporated into the gables of public buildings on the occasion of the celebration of 14 July 1880, and finally in the constitutions of 1946 and 1958.

Ironically, French women did not have the right to vote until 1944 — 35 years after the first French suffrage movement — and it was not until after 1983 that French companies were forced to report equal pay for men and women.

Today, and although progressive French law stipulates that all companies must pay men and women equally, women make up 52 percent of the population, but still earn on average 24 percent less than men. And this gap widens if you are younger and earn less. Women aged 25-39 with a basic income earn 31 percent less than their male counterparts. 

As explained by The Nation, in France, many careers are still the preserve of men. Professions related to research and development (R&D) are only 30 percent female. In the construction industry, only 12 percent of employees are women.

Women still do not have a seat at the table in French businesses. Of the 120 large listed companies, only 9 have a female CEO. The latest to join this elite club is Anne Rigail, who became the first female CEO of Air France in December 2018.

Finally, it is not a question of changing the motto to include a “sorority” that results in a zero-sum game, but of understanding that true feminism starts with the struggle for equality and “solidarity,” which would be a more appropriate word to start a truly inclusive chapter in the history of the mother nation of Human Rights.