By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Source: La France à l'ONU / Twitter
On March 8, 2019, International Women’s Day, France announced that it would be adopting a feminist foreign policy, joining the ranks of Canada and Sweden. The recasting of its foreign policy has, thus far, been nascent and incoherent as much of its existing policy practice remains unchanged and information on its reorientation has been limited. Nonetheless, it is a milestone that merits analysis as France is the first and only country from the United Nations Security Council’s Permanent five members to take this step. In this respect, France has signalled its desire to set an example of feminist foreign policy for the rest of the world to follow.
International Strategy on Gender Equality
In 2018, France launched the third edition of its International Strategy for Gender Equality (2018-2022) as a “a steering tool designed to coordinate the work over the next five years and improve the situation of women around the world.” Under this framework, a top priority for France is to mainstream gender into the institutional culture of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs (MEAE) so that it is systematically taken into consideration in all areas, including peace and security, climate change, the economy, and sustainable development.
Within the government, the Ministry is also working towards increasing the representation of women in ambassadorial positions, providing training on gender issues for all ministry employees, and inculcating gender equality under all agencies of the Ministry. According to the government, this includes tackling issues of gender equality in several auspices such as education, sexual and reproductive health and rights, vocational training and so on.  Several steps have already been put in place in this regard, starting with increasing representation of women in its diplomatic acumen and to include both feminine and masculine forms in all communication. The latter is a step towards gender neutrality and balanced representation as French is a gendered language in which words take on either a masculine or feminine form. Since certain words, especially adjectives, can take both forms according to the context, this measure is an inclusive step away from the patriarchal norm in which the masculine form is considered to be the default.
In a joint article by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, and Mrs. Marlène Schiappa, Minister of State for Gender Equality and the Fight against Discrimination, announced that France would be supporting women’s empowerment around the world by eliminating sexual and gender-based violence, fighting for equality in the workplace, improving access to education and empowering women economically.
This was the first formal announcement and recognition of France’s feminist diplomacy, which pledges to “include gender in all French diplomatic priorities and all political, economic, soft diplomacy, cultural, educational and development cooperation actions.” This is important to note as France’s feminist foreign policy commitments are not limited to just its engagements with emerging economies, developing countries, and aid recipients. Rather, it is all-encompassing and covers all of France’s international relations. It’s biggest priority is to take its advocacy to international forums and “wants this goal to be taken into account in all issues from inequality reduction to sustainable development, peace and security, defence and promotion of fundamental rights, and climate and economic issues.” As one of the world’s most powerful countries in terms of influence and international standing, France has taken on the role of being a standard-setter by normalising gender equality considerations in the conduct of foreign policy and relations.
As part of France’s Presidency of the G7 in 2019, gender equality was a key theme, continuing from the precedent set by Canada set in 2018. France hosted a Gender Equality Ministers meeting, which was attended by the Gender Equality Advisory Council that was established by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The meeting prioritised the economic empowerment of African women, eliminating sexual and gender-based violence (including female genital mutilation, early marriage, and cyberbullying) as well as education for women and girls.
During its tenure, France also launched the Biarritz partnership for Gender Equality which was proclaimed to be an ambitious compilation of progressive laws that are “most favourable” to women. Indeed, the Biarritz Partnership was one of the few deliverables to emerge from the ministerial meeting, especially as it called for other countries who are not members of the G7 to join in the global coalition. In this sense, it is commendable to see France follow through on its intention to extend its feminist diplomacy beyond the Global North. Countries outside of the G7, India, Senegal, Australia and Chile “announced national commitments within the framework of the Partnership to help advance gender equality”.
The conclusion of the partnership meetings resulted in a Declaration on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. Although it has been more than a year and a half seen the announcement of national commitments, there have been no updates from any of the signatory countries. The W7, which is a coalition of feminist organisations from G7 countries, released a statement expressing their disappointment with how leaders paid lip-service to the importance of gender equality without taking any concrete steps towards achieving it. For example, they noted that France’s budget for the Secretariat of Gender Equality is thousand times smaller than that of the military. This is fundamentally antithetical to feminist foreign policy and diplomacy. Failing to move beyond mere statements of principle, it is high time that G7, especially the forerunner France, bolsters its commitments with adequate funding, a strict timeline for its implementation and an accountability and consultancy framework that can be managed by feminist organisations.
One of the only concrete measures that has been detailed under France’s feminist foreign policy is its feminist foreign assistance. Within its International Strategy framework, France committed to budget 50% of its public development aid and assistance (ODA) for gender policy and promoting gender equality objectives abroad. President Emmanuel Macron launched a grant budget of €120 million which will be managed by the French Development Agency (AFD). The grant budget will primarily be used to support feminist movements and NGOS in developing countries. The AFD has been tasked to increase its annual funding towards gender-equality-oriented projects to €700 million by 2022.
Under these auspices, the government concentrates on five key broad areas:
i) Healthcare for women and girls, particularly sexual and reproductive health, maternal mortality, and family planning services
ii) Raising the legal age of marriage
iii) Vocational training, professional opportunities, and employment
iv) Education, particularly comprehensive sexuality education
v) Improved infrastructure 
This widespread focus is indicative that France is keen on placing women’s empowerment at the heart of all areas of their international agenda. As Thompson and Clement note, “France’s “comprehensive approach” is the closest the country comes to extending the scope of its policy to apply more broadly than to development.  It moves one step further from gender mainstreaming to include a human-rights based approach, ensuring that these fundamental rights form the foundation of all humanitarian and development policies.
What stands out in France’s feminist foreign policy is that it sets itself a framework to track its progress. The country’s policies will be reviewed by working groups and civil society actors according to its stated objectives and metrics. It is also commendable that the country’s strategy is accompanied by procedures and rules for accountability – a feature that is notably missing in Sweden, Canada, and Mexico’s articulations. France has also mandated annual evaluation of progress made on its strategies, especially with regards to achieving its goals of progressively increasing bilateral ODA that contributes to gender equality projects. While it may come across as an ambitious goal to keep track of its metrics, France must be appreciated for their transparency and accountability mechanisms. Even though the policy framework is still very new, this is an important step as it should, on paper, ensure that the feminist foreign policy is not merely jingoistic or tokenistic but rather actionable and effective in its implementation.
Structural Violence Endures
While it is commendable to see the dedicated resources to women and girls’ holistic empowerment, it is simply a bare minimum to classify any and every policy stance that adheres specifically and only to women and girls, as a feminist policy. This practice only reinforces the gender binary and is exclusionary to queer and gender non-confirming people. Further, the emphasis on cisgender interpretations of feminism do not take into consideration the intersectional needs and discriminations faced by those who fall outside this umbrella.
Additionally, France’s particular emphasis on providing feminist development assistance to African countries, in particular its former colonies, raises some eyebrows about France’s history as a coloniser country. In fact, France’s legacy of military intervention and colonisation continue to play a huge role in the exercise of French diplomacy and foreign policy today. Consider that the Rwandan government’s accusation of French complacency in the 1994 genocide. Consider too that most of France’s foreign assistance, foreign military presence and even business interest is concentrated in Africa. Consider that France has had a virulent and intolerant past with respect to Muslim women’s right to wear a veil, banning all kinds of facial coverings in public spaces including the niqab and burqa in 2010. Indeed, this is a debate that “exposes the continuities of colonial legacies”  coupled with western-centric and universalist notions of feminism.
Thus, even as France diverts to a feminist foreign policy agenda, it fails to address neo-colonialist imbalances of power and doesn’t pay attention to intersectional forms of discrimination. Thompson and Clement point out that feminist foreign policies have the potential to be the “latest postcolonial export of northern countries – well intentioned perhaps, but ultimately equally uninformed by the voices and perspectives of those on the receiving end”.  This is particularly true for development assistance wherein women who face marginalisation due to multiple identities are not involved in the discourse regarding policies made for them.
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1. France's International Strategy on Gender Equality (2018-2022) (Read)
2. Towards a truly feminist and transformative G7 (Read)
3. Why are ex-colonies in Africa so important to France? (Read)