France’s Equality Minister Welcomes Sharing Experiences with Saudi Arabia

Élisabeth Moreno to Majalla: “Women's Liberation Goes Through Economic Liberalization with Work and Education”
French Minister for Gender Equality, Diversity and Equal Opportunities Élisabeth Moreno. (Supplied)

The beautiful African Élisabeth Moreno was born in the charming city of Traval, Cape Verde, and thanks to her great success, President Emmanuel Macron chose her on July 6, 2020, as a minister in the French government responsible for gender equality, diversity and equal opportunities.

She earned a master's degree in business law from the University of Paris as well as an Executive Double MBA from Mannheim Business School in Germany, and then she completed her studies at the National French Higher School of the Judiciary to become a judge. She spent most of her career in business. Majalla met with her in her office at the Ministry in Paris to learn about her rich experience and policy-making, which has aroused interest from both the French and Europeans alike. So this was a very frank interview:

A French LAw Approved against Gender-Based Bias and harassment

Majalla: How could you have achieved remarkable successes and become a minister when you came from a poor family where your parents were illiterate and lived in very difficult circumstances, but today you are a source of pride for foreigners. What's your secret?

Moreno (smiling confidently): I worked very hard. The secret is good education and hard work. I want you to tell all young people that there is no absolute imperative; they can be born into a very poor family, but if they study and work hard, they can make their own destiny with their own hands. Do you know that if someone ever told me, in my home country of Cape Verde, that I would have the professional status that I live in today and that I would have the luck to be a role model to inspire others … I wouldn't believe it, but I made my destiny with my own hands like thousands of people in France and the world despite the compelling circumstances.

In fact, I've always made my differences and weaknesses my strengths. At school, I was the only little black girl. When I started my career, not only was I a woman but a young woman of color, working in a very masculine sector and I had to overcome and impose my personality with success and excellence.

Loving the challenge doesn't mean I don't see the obstacles. I'm aware of the difficulties, but for me, they don't impede the course to follow. They're part of the way. There's no flowers without thorns. And that's certainly what drives me most in my life. I was never afraid to start from scratch. On the contrary, I like to overcome obstacles. Success starts here.

Majalla: Contrary to prevailing ideas, your position as Minister for Gender Equality, Diversity and Equal Opportunity is not a gift, it's one of the most difficult ministries because the task is big and arduous and the problem is very old

Moreno: You are so right. It's really a challenging position, but it's also full of human satisfaction and happiness. To start in politics, I needed something to inspire me in human terms, you know, I spent the last 30 years of my life in business and corporations, and I never thought I'd be a minister. But I wouldn't get into politics if it wasn't this job I'm doing right now. I understand that the themes of gender equality and of diversity and equal opportunities are prominent societal themes that I believe will be further developed in the coming years, especially after this crisis. Health is extremely important for all and for minorities as well, including women in particular.

Majalla: Diversity raises a lot of issues. I think your origin facilitates your task?

Moreno: Africa and France are part of my identity, I am so African and European and I am so convinced and so proud of this dual culture, and this dual affiliation. I know I'm far from being isolated. We're millions of people living in a mix of this identity every day. In France as well as in the other countries of the world.

I grew up in this country - I've lived in France for 45 years; I arrived here when I was seven years old, and I know the value of this country and our obligations, but I also know what rights and topics we have to address to ensure that we embrace our republican principles, but if we do not live in freedom, equality and fraternity, it will be difficult for everyone to find a place in France.

French Minister Élisabeth Moreno speaking to Majalla in her office at the Ministry in Paris. 

Majalla: What are the most prominent tasks under your responsibility?

Moreno: It is so many and so diverse, and I will start with the great issue that President Macron holds on to in his mandate: gender equality, because I think the pandemic put humanity to the test, it put the human being at the center of all societal issues, and we are aware that the most economically advanced countries have not recovered from this health crisis yet. We have all learned lessons from what happened, so we have to return the human being to his position as our first concern.

Majalla: Should we put the economy aside?

Moreno: No, I did not mean that. We must continue to develop the economy. Moreover, economic recovery will be at the center of discussions in all countries after this crisis, which has seriously frozen the economies of countries. But we must not forget human beings because if you see the numbers of people who lost their lives in this crisis (over 4 million), that leads us to rethink how we should look at human beings in society. As you know, societies ultimately determine their destiny in the battles they decide to fight or not to fight.

Majalla: In France, a woman dies every two or three days under the beating of her husband or her ex-spouse. Violence against women has become a global phenomenon. What are you doing to combat these crimes?

Moreno: Fighting violence against women is one of the pillars of gender equality in our Government. Yes, in France a woman dies every two or three days under the beating of her husband or ex-husband. We'll never be able to talk about gender equality if we don't start protecting women who are supposed to be safe in their homes. So fighting this violence is one of the first tasks I did when I took over the Ministry because I noticed that during the health crisis, there was a huge increase in violence against women and domestic violence exploded. Also, we've seen an increase in the number of complaints by 9% over 2020, I think that women in France as in the rest of the world, in the past, were afraid and shy and that family members or friends didn't know what was happening to them. They were panicking about scandal, and just talking (about domestic violence) was taboo, etc., but now all these taboos have been lifted, since we set up homes for victims of domestic violence, which has resulted in 46 actions, and the government has been implementing them since they were established.

My goal is to achieve 100% implementation, and among the actions I call for, there is a need to increase the number of emergency accommodations, because women often don't leave their homes because they don't know where to go with their children. Thus since 2017, we have increased the number of shelters in all regions by 60% to accommodate women and children who are victims of violence. We have also established care centers for perpetrators because so far we have dealt only by punishing perpetrators, but we must also prevent, explain to everyone, and to start work at an early age, at school to sensitize perpetrators. Young boys must be taught to respect girls so that they understand that women are not their ‘objects’.

Women must also be taught to recognize that there is a problem since the first slap, because a man who loves his wife does not beat her, does not cheat on her, does not insult her, does not despise her and does not impress her. The attitude of fathers is also reflected in the psyche of children who may easily turn to crime and violence against women. Such behavior must be taken into account.

Despite being in 2021 we have statistics that some people of our time think it's normal to beat their wife when the food is too salty or when they wear a short skirt, etc., so this culture of equality is necessary, which is why I work so much with Jean-Michel Blanquer, Minister of National Education and Youth, because in school they not only have to learn respect, but they also have to learn psychological and mental awareness. The perpetrators of violence must also be treated psychologically because there is also a relationship between violence, drugs and alcohol. Unfortunately, there are still some men who believe that women are their objects and that they have the right to life or death over them.

French Minister Élisabeth Moreno. (Supplied)

Majalla: Do you have any statistics on the murder of women in France, namely Arab, Muslim, African, Asian or French?

Moreno: Unfortunately, we have all kinds of victims, French and foreign, there are also rich women, poor women, Asian women, Muslim and African women, French women, etc. There are all categories. We note that the situation is improving slightly because we see 2020 as the first year that we had the lowest number of femicides. However, even if there was only one woman murdered, it would be a heavy toll. In reality, the number is large, as 102 women died under the blows of their husbands.

But since 2005, when we counted the number of victims of domestic violence, the proportion of women killed until then has been between 150 and 180, which proves that we are making progress, but there is still a great deal of work to be done on this subject. A woman is killed because she is the weakest, the youngest, the shortest, and because she is a woman, and this is not permissible in this era. Murder is forbidden in all laws and religions, and it is a terrible act, but it is worse when it is the killing of the weak and innocent.

30% of women in managerial positions

Majalla: Why do you talk so much about women's economic empowerment?

Moreno: Because it's an important topic that I know very well. Because I've spent 30 years of my life in the business world, I am convinced that women's liberation depends on their economic liberalization. A bill has been passed unanimously covering all topics of economic empowerment and it can even help women who want to set up businesses or companies where women have much more difficulty than men in finding financing. So it's a historic step that we've taken where we've encouraged companies to create jobs for women and given them potential and advantage. Soon we will find more women in companies, in the world of technology, science and mathematics, and in professions where women are rare.

This is why we are working to achieve this in the next five years because, in 2021, women in France are not created only to raise and educate children. They are fully trained, well-educated and highly qualified and have proven their abilities in all areas and are therefore capable of taking responsibility, and that is why we assert this law with great will.

We must have responsible women in the administration, and it is also necessary that girls enter the scientific sector so that they do not lose this precious opportunity. It is not normal that in France there are only 30% of women in management positions.

Balance and social justice must be achieved, so I am proud to announce to you that France is the first country in the world to embark on this adventure. Women's participation in economic life is very important. You say that women are half of society and this is true. It is not a question of charity, but rather a matter of performance, competence and talent. It is a matter of contributing to the country's economic development after the pandemic.

French President, Emmanuel Macron meets Melinda Gates, co-president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the Generation Equality Forum at the Palais de l'Elysee on July 1, 2021 in Paris, France. (Getty)

More than two million women in our country suffer from insecurity

Majalla: Have you voted for one law on such a big issue as gender equality since the arrival of President Macron?

Moreno: Within 4 years, we voted on 4 laws on the issue of gender equality but other than these 4 laws, there were many other segments put in place by the government such as doubling the maternity leave by approving paternity leave, so that fathers can also participate in attending the birth of the child as mothers do, so the father will not have any block in his work and his salary will remain valid.

We believe that it is positive for children as well as mothers to relieve women to allow them to resume their jobs more quietly and more quickly. We also created new public services for more than 70000 single-parent families in France today, and we found that 85% of these families are managed by mothers, divorced or separated. There are many unpaid family expenses that make up 20% of home budgets, so we stepped in to remove all these economic problems that arose and worsened during the Covid-19 crisis. We couldn't put this issue aside, we also fought against the insecurity of women which was again a taboo subject until now, and so France decided to take up the issue.

We have more than 2 million women who feel insecure (because of sexism) at the workplace or at home or in public places in France - while more than 500 million women suffer from it in the world. Do you know that France is the first country in the world to pass the law of contempt for sexism - you know that women are often harassed on the streets and sometimes at work, so France passed a law to punish men who assault women.

Majalla: As for the law passed in 2018 (Professional Equality Index) to promote equal pay between women and men, is your salary the same as that of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Interior and Justice?

Moreno: Yes, I get the same salary. All ministers are paid exactly the same. Indeed, the law is a very big step forward on equal pay for men and women. This law states that if a woman does the same job as a man, she should get the same pay, it's as simple as that.

Every year we see how far companies are moving, and we see that there's progress, but we also see that there's still a great deal to be done. For example, I noticed that in 43% of the big companies in France there is only one woman among the top 10 high earners. This is little, but the result was zero before that law. Now the machine is working and on its way to more gains, but in general, women earn less than men. But you know that in France, there is a gender wage gap estimated at 9 to 25%, even if you have the same degrees, the same experience. That can't be explained. Today we've made regulations that impose penalties on companies that don't respect equity in wages, I think that's the best way forward on this subject.

Majalla: Do you agree to work with Saudi Arabia, a country that is fighting for women's rights after the arrival of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Mohammed bin Zayed and has made significant gains?

Moreno: Yes, we gladly want to work with all the countries of the world, because we believe in women's diplomacy, I have an international personality, and I believe that today the world is much more globalized and that it is already connected as a small village. What is happening in the United States can affect France and what is happening in the Middle East can affect Europe, what is happening in South Africa can affect Germany. This global interdependence is what I find interesting, with its flaws and qualities, but I am convinced that we all have things to learn from each other.

My experience, working in the five continents, made it clear to me, and to my surprise, I found out that even the big countries have found injustice for women, and so inequality between women and men everywhere in the world is the same. Women have no real place in the five continents, even in the very advanced United States in many areas. For example, in the United States, there are no quotas for women, there is no equal pay between the sexes, there are many things missing. But in general the problem is systematically based on economy, health and gender discrimination, so we always see the same problems everywhere, which is why we have to pool our strengths together so that we can find solutions and that is why we welcome sharing our experiences with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Majalla: Is France advancing in this area?

Moreno: Yes, we are advancing every day. You know that for very long years, indeed for centuries, no one has talked about women's issues, we previously thought that it was normal for a woman to marry at a very young age and stay at home without studying and that she educates, raises children, cooks and so on, it might have been possible in the past, but it is not acceptable today.

In our time, life has changed. A woman who wants to live in Paris has to work. Rent is expensive. There's no such thing as staying at home. Even a woman with a disability or a handicap works. A woman, like a man, has to live to earn her money, but you cannot tolerate the issue of women being killed, raped, beaten or earning less because they are women.