In France, female journalists fight back over equal pay and representation

January 23, 2018
Image via Fondapol—Fondation pour l'innovation politique/flickr

A movement for equal pay and representation is spreading among female journalists in France. More than 200 women across three leading publications—Le Parisien, L’Obs, and La Provence—are demanding change in open letters to editors. And their calls to action are shifting the country’s post-Weinstein conversation about the treatment of women in media into the terrain of entrenched newsroom structures.

The burgeoning movement was born two weeks ago at Paris-based daily, Le Parisien. When managers announced they’d be hiring a new editor for the weekend edition, 77 women in the newsroom decided to send an identical application for the post. “There were three, then four, then five of us talking while having lunch,” says Christel Brigaudeau, an education and society correspondent at the paper. “It was a joke at first. But then we said, let’s talk about this idea to all the female journalists to see what they think. And everyone was quite enthusiastic.”

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While the director general of Le Parisien is a woman, there are no women among the paper’s upper editorial ranks, which the 77 female staffers noted in their letter. “Being a woman isn’t a skill, but neither is being a man,” they wrote. (Some of the quotations in this article have been translated from French.)

As of Tuesday morning, the move had been backed by more than 100 women at the publication, while a similar number of men in the newsroom signed a separate letter supporting their colleagues’ stance. Brigaudeau says there was some discussion of allowing men to sign the original letter, but that that would have diluted its purpose as a collective job application. “The action comes originally from the women. It’s their idea, and we as men are just saying, ‘Hey, it’s a very good idea,’” says Louis Moulin, who signed the letter of support. “Fighting for equality is not just a women’s issue, it’s a men’s and women’s issue.”

Since the letters won nationwide attention, female journalists at two other French publications have publicly lined up behind women at Le Parisien. “Their way of expressing themselves was very intelligent and effective. The letter says lots of things—it sent a clear and implacable message,” says Violette Lazard, an investigative journalist at weekly news magazine L’Obs. More than 60 women at L’Obs—known until 2014 as Le Nouvel Observateur—wrote their own letter to management, complaining that men and women of comparable ages and seniority are not paid equally. While women do hold some positions of responsibility at the magazine, its senior editors are mostly men.

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Last week, meanwhile, 60 of the 65 female staffers at Marseille-based regional daily La Provence, stepped into the fray, claiming equality of gender representation among their top editors was “the same [as at Le Parisien]… except that it’s worse.” A reporter at the paper, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the Parisien action is snowballing into a broader movement among French female journalists. “There’s quite a joyous atmosphere among women in the newsroom at the moment,” she says.

It’s too early to say if the movement will result in real change in the top roles at these publications. While management at Le Parisien swiftly responded to their staffers crowdsourced job application—sharing their concerns and soliciting individual resumes—journalists at L’Obs and La Provence say editors have yet to comment publicly or privately on their similar letters. (Management at all three publications did not respond to CJR’s requests for comment.)

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But the movement has struck fertile soil in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, which has reignited industry debates on sexism in countries around the world. While sexual harassment and abuse have remained the focus in many places, grievances around gender disparities in pay and representation have also been amplified in recent weeks. Carrie Gracie, for example, stepped down as the BBC’s China editor, citing what she called a persistent “secretive and illegal pay culture” at the broadcaster.

French female journalists’ demands for equality aren’t new—they recall a similar complaint levied against management at financial newspaper Les Echos in 2013. But unlike this wave of action, that protest didn’t metastasize across French media. “You have three newsrooms in a short space of time. That’s quite uncommon,” says Aude Lorriaux, a freelance journalist and spokeswoman for “Prenons La Une,” a collective of French female journalists campaigning for equality in the media. “It shows [women in newsrooms] have the confidence….to verbalize what they’ve known all along.”

The grievances articulated by journalists at Le Parisien, L’Obs, and La Provence are a long way from being reconciled. As Sonia Devillers, a media critic on the radio station France Inter, noted in a column last week, no woman has ever been named editorial director of a French daily or weekly news title, even though most French journalists are women.

More broadly, the post-Weinstein moment in France hasn’t created a robust climate of accountability for powerful French media men. Feminists worldwide slammed an open letter in Le Monde—signed by 100 high-profile women, including actor Catherine Deneuve—which cast the #MeToo movement as censorious and puritanical (Deneuve later clarified her position). And Sandra Muller—a New York-based journalist who originated the French equivalent of #MeToo, #BalanceTonPorc (“squeal on your pig”)—is being sued for defamation by a former TV director she accused of harassing her, even though he admitted to using “misplaced” language over a drink.

With this new movement, however, women in French media remain optimistic that they’ve taken a first step toward reform, and have found hope in this wave of cross-industry solidarity. “Historically, women are placed in situations where they’re competing with each other in a patriarchal system,” says Lorriaux. “This movement of sororité among women, who aren’t well-known feminists but who just work in these newsrooms, is a very encouraging sign.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.