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Egality N'est Pas La Réalité: French Women Wage Online War On Sexism

Caroline De Haas, 34, launched Macholand.fr after a company responded dismissively to her complaint against its sexist advertising. (Courtesy of EGAE)

Caroline De Haas has had enough. The French feminist, 34, became so fed up with sexism in the country that she's launched a website to fight it.

Tapping on her keyboard, De Haas brings up the new site, Macholand.fr. On the screen are several "actions" targeted at sexist politicians or advertisers who have crossed the line.

Take, for example, Gerard Collomb, the mayor of France's second-largest city, Lyon. Collomb recently said the country's education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, got her job simply because President Francois Hollande loves beautiful women.

"It's just incredible that in the 21st century, politics people could say that without any reaction in the political class," says De Haas. "Nobody say nothing!"

De Haas hopes that with Macholand, French women will now be able to speak out and have their opinion heard.

"It's a website to mobilize people against sexism," she says. "The sexism in the media, the sexism in advertising or the sexism in politics."

The site invites users to join the so-called action against Collomb.

"You can send a tweet to this guy to tell him what he say about the minister of national education is totally sexist, and he should shut up the next time he has an idea like this," says De Haas.

There seems to be no shortage of sexism in France. Feminists say the country's Latin roots and streak of machismo allow powerful men get away with bad behavior toward women.

Think of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The Frenchman was arrested in New York City in May 2011 after allegedly assaulting a hotel maid. Though the case was dropped for lack of evidence, it brought to light that Strauss-Kahn had been engaged in sketchy behavior toward women in France for years, but no one had dared expose him.

Walk down any Paris street and no one seems to flinch at the number of naked women staring out from advertisements and magazine covers at news kiosks. And despite the fact that egalite is part of the French motto, French women earn 25 percent less than their male counterparts, and make up only a quarter of the country's parliament and 3 percent of chief executives.

De Haas, who runs her own company, decided to launch Macholand to let women (or men) join in collective Twitter, Facebook or email campaigns against sexism.

The site has been up a few days, and already more than 6,000 people have participated.

Another target on the site is a dating website that compares women to cars — in fact, I saw one of the company's giant ads posted right beside my son's elementary school. "French women also have beautiful chassis," it read, above a sultry-looking mademoiselle with most of her bare derriere exposed.

Visitors to Macholand.fr also are invited to start their own actions against sexism. You can upload a picture of the offensive person, place or thing and ask others to join you in doing something about it.

At a popular gym in Paris' 15th arrondissement, women of all ages are working out. Retiree Francoise Delamarre heard about the site on the news and thinks it's a great idea.

"It's like a forum to fight sexism instead of remaining frustrated and alone," she says.

Emilie Bresson, 34, agrees that French women lag behind women in some other European countries.

"No, I think we don't have the same rights as, for example, Scandinavian women," says Bresson. "I think they are more progressist on this point."

But Bresson thinks the best way to fight sexism is at the workplace, not on a website. She thinks French women have a long way to go before they'll be able to have families and build careers with the same ease as men.

Back at her office, De Haas remembers what first gave her the idea for Macholand. After contacting a company about a degrading advertisement, they wrote her back saying they were sorry she found it sexist.

"I said, oh my God, they think it's my opinion! They think that, okay, sexist or not sexist, is just an opinion." she says. "It's not an opinion, it's a fact. It's very dangerous."

De Haas says many women became outraged after she tweeted the company's response to her. That's when she realized it was pointless to act alone.

"If 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 people react in the same time to say the same thing, a company can no longer call it an opinion," says De Haas. "They have to recognize they have a problem."

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A promotional video for Macholand.fr highlights how pervasive sexism is in French society.
Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The war of the sexes may be as old as humanity itself, but French women now have a 21st century weapon - Macholand.fr, allows them to target companies and individuals they consider sexist through social media campaigns. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has more.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Thirty-four-year-old Caroline De Haas has had enough.

CAROLINE DE HAAS: It's a website to mobilize people against sexism, the sexism in the media, the sexism in advertising or the sexism in politics.

BEARDSLEY: She launched Macholand.fr this week. The site allows subscribers to take collective action against sexist ads or behavior by launching e-mail, Facebook or Twitter campaigns against it. For example, take what the mayor of Leon, France's second-largest city, said about the country's education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.

DE HAAS: This guy says Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Minister of National Education was minister because the president like beautiful women, so it's just incredible that in the 21st century politics people could say that without any reaction in the political class. Nobody said nothing.

BEARDSLEY: Now thanks to Macholand, irate citizens can denounce such behavior.

DE HAAS: You can send a tweet to this guy, to tell him what he say about the Minister of National Education is totally sexist and he should shut up the next time he has an idea like this.

BEARDSLEY: French feminists say France's Latin culture has a Machismo factor that often allows powerful men to get away with bad behavior toward women and no one seems to flinch at the number of naked women in advertisements. At a popular gym in Paris's 15th arrondissement, 34-year-old Emilie Bresson is heading back to the office after a workout. She says French women are behind some of their European neighbors.

EMILIE BRESSON: No, I think we don't have the same rights as for example Scandinavian woman. I think they are more progressive on these points.

BEARDSLEY: Bresson says French women will have to keep up the struggle, but she says it's better to fight at work than on such a website. Back at her office De Hass remembers what gave her the idea for Macholand. After contacting a company about a degrading advertisement they wrote her back saying they were sorry she found it sexist.

DE HAAS: I said, oh, my God, they think that it's my opinion. They think that, OK, sexism does not exist is just an opinion. It's not an opinion. It's a fact. It's very dangerous.

BEARDSLEY: De Haas says many women became outraged after she tweeted their response. That's when she realized it was pointless to act alone.

DE HAAS: But if 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 people react in the same time to say the same thing.

BEARDSLEY: Then says De Haas a company can no longer call it an opinion, they have to recognize they have a problem. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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