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Vive La Condition Feminine!

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In France, cabinet meetings are almost never photographed. But this occasion was an exception—the first meeting with the first woman cabinet member in Europe to head a Ministry of Women’s Affairs, or as the French put it, la Condition Féminine.

“The photographers machine-gunned me,” exclaimed Françoise Giroud, 57, editor of the influential, Time-style magazine, L’Express, and one of France’s most articulate feminists. “They photographed me because I was a woman. I was an event! I turned to a minister sitting beside me and said, ‘Now you see why you need a Women’s Affairs Minister. Mentalities as well as conditions have to be changed.’ ”

If anyone can change French attitudes toward la Condition Féminine, it will be Giroud. Her columns in L ‘Express in favor of abortion, birth control, equal pay for women and day nurseries have provoked a torrent of comment and spurred reforms.

The new ministry’s task—”to oversee the integration of women into contemporary French society”—seemed made to order for Giroud. But she had at first turned down the post, suspecting the job was mere window dressing. “They would have me setting up an office in the kitchen of the prime minister,” she wrote in L’Express, “making coffee for those gentlemen.” Five weeks later, she finally agreed when President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (she had backed his opponent, François Mitterrand, in the last election) convinced her that he was serious about his election promise to improve the lot of women.

Far from being a strident tractarian, filled with the zeal of such revolutionaries as Simone de Beauvoir, Giroud has never found getting along in the male world a formidable problem. A poor girl growing up in an exclusive boarding school, she early learned to “work like hell and be first in the class.”

On her own since the age of 14, she admits, “I had a little dragon to fight. I had to prove that a girl could do a job as well as a boy.” She broke into the movie business as a script girl and worked with director Jean Renoir on La Grande Illusion. Arrested by the Gestapo for her resistance activities, she emerged from prison to found Elle, France’s largest woman’s magazine.

Living the life of a liberated woman, she frankly confesses in her recent book, Si je mens…(to be published in the U.S. in October as I Give My Word), to a broken marriage, three children (one was killed in childhood), several liaisons, including one with Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, cofounder with Giroud of L’Express, and one attempted suicide.

From all this she has emerged surprisingly serene. “On the whole,” she says, “I think men and women in France have a particularly good relationship. Here, women have never been considered negligible quantities.” But she is adamant that sexual discrimination (79 percent of minimum wage earners in France are women) and barriers to equality must go.

“It is not just a question of brassieres and dishwashing,” she insists, adding, “When I look at my kitchen and my elevator, I am sure not the most stupid woman in the world would have allowed the elevator to open the wrong way, or put the flue over the sink instead of the stove as they did in my apartment.”