If we are to meet, it must be on a Monday, says Élisabeth Badinter. The rest of the week, the French historian, feminist and billionaire explains, is spent gathering material for her research into the 18th century, which she then works on at the weekends in her country house 60km from Paris. “I like working in my archives more than anything else!”
The number of Badinter’s recent media appearances, however, makes me wonder whether her schedule might have been compromised. The day after we meet she is on a radio talk show discussing gender identity. The following day, in an interview with Le Monde newspaper, she will blast the French government’s plan to clamp down on prostitution by levying fines on its clients.
Badinter, 69, a former philosophy teacher and a bestselling author, is an intellectual of a peculiarly French type: commanding respect for her academic work and regularly asked to opine on the big social or political issues of the day.
A framed black-and-white photograph of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre greets us as we make our way to our table at Le Dôme, once a favourite Montparnasse haunt of existentialism’s couple terrible. Since their day, the place has grown from a smoke-filled café to one of Paris’s best fish restaurants, which seems to be – along with its proximity to her own apartment by the nearby Luxembourg Gardens – the main reason Badinter chose the place for our lunch.
As we slide on to red velvet banquettes, facing each other on either side of a narrow table, crunchy bread and salted butter appear in front of us. The background buzzes with the clack of cutlery and snatches of conversations. It’s 1pm but it might as well be night: daylight doesn’t reach this corner of Le Dôme. Squeezed between a wooden pillar and a brown and yellow art deco stained-glass partition, we are hidden from the rows of tables that face the boulevard.
“Why on earth do you want to have lunch with me?” she murmurs with almost coquettish self-deprecation, her pale blue eyes near-colourless under the low-hanging orange lampshade. She is all pastels – light pink scarf over a beige cashmere cardigan; her white hair cut mid-length and simply tied back. But this has been a busy year for Badinter: she has been an outspoken supporter of gay marriage – one of the reforms enacted by socialist president François Hollande; defended a nursery sued for sacking an employee who refused to remove her veil; and led the fight against a new prostitution bill (which the National Assembly has since approved).
The year has also been important in another aspect of her life. For the past 17 years, she has chaired the board of Publicis, the advertising agency founded by her father Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet in 1926 and now the world’s third largest. She is also its largest shareholder (her stake, about 9.5 per cent, makes her a billionaire). In July, however, Publicis announced that it is merging with US rival Omnicom in a $35bn deal.
Though I had been warned that Publicis is a topic Badinter never talks about publicly, she herself had not mentioned any such taboo. Her only request before our lunch was that I transcribe her words accurately. “I am old and I have been refaite [made over or misrepresented] many times,” she had joked on the phone. A waiter describes the special of the day – fried scallops with endives and purée. “No, I’ll have what I love here,” she answers, “langoustines with fresh pasta and pesto: I just love it. What you suggest sounds good, too,” she adds with a gap-toothed smile, as if to mollify the waiter, “but it’s been such a long time, I am returning to my first love.” She knows the menu, she says, not because she comes here with her husband but because it is somewhere she used to visit with female friends.
Élisabeth Bleustein-Blanchet met Robert Badinter, who is 16 years older than her, when she was 12 and he was her father’s lawyer. A decade later they married and, within a few years, had two sons and a daughter. He had long crusaded against the death penalty and, after being appointed justice minister in François Mitterrand’s socialist government in 1981, he wrote the law that abolished the guillotine. Meanwhile, Élisabeth continued her studies, becoming a lecturer at the École Polytechnique and writing 20 books including, with her husband, a 700-page biography of Nicolas de Condorcet, the philosopher and mathematician who was one of the rare French revolutionary leaders to have voted against the execution of Louis XVI.
Badinter will not have wine but sparkling water – Chateldon. We’re told to order desserts in advance if we want some, and she does very much. “Crème au chocolat et craquant aux quatre épices,” she reads, longingly. “It’s really cream? All right then, I’ll have that.” I settle for the scallops followed by the rum and vanilla millefeuille, a Dôme classic.
We’re about to resume our conversation when a short, bald middle-aged man comes out of nowhere. “Forgive me, I’d like to greet you,” he says, reaching out to her. “Are you well, Madame?” They shake hands, she asks how he is. “Very well. I am far away from Publicis, that’s my only sorrow,” he says with an eloquent gesture, vanishing as quickly as he appeared. A Publicis employee who left Paris, she explains, firmly blocking further speculation.
Instead, profiting from the unexpected arrival of some marinated salmon, she turns the conversation to feminism. “I have a bizarre feminism!” she says, explaining that she disagrees with contemporary feminists when they fight for more protection in the workplace, quotas and legislation against sexual harassment and gender discrimination. “A certain number of feminists, especially in the US, don’t understand we need to fight for gender equality more than for women’s rights. It’s a long battle … It doesn’t happen by waving a magic wand or – what we’re seeing too often nowadays – by accusing or suing men. It’s a fight that needs time, education, a bit of making men feel guilty but not too much.”
Her opinion of US feminists deteriorated further when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund, was accused of sexual assault by a Sofitel chambermaid in New York in 2011. Before all criminal charges were dropped three months later, a group of US feminists called for action against “sexual violence” with a petition accusing French media and public figures of portraying Strauss-Kahn more as a victim than as a perpetrator. Though the scandal “helped other women express what they could not before, which is very positive,” says Badinter, the way Strauss-Kahn, whose wife Anne Sinclair is a friend of hers, was treated has left a scar.
“We don’t know what happened. Only they know. Did they strike a deal that he didn’t respect? We’ll never know. Maybe this is because I’m married to a lawyer but immediate accusation and finger-pointing horrifies me. I was so angry I had to say something [publicly].”
The main courses arrive. Badinter picks up black-rimmed reading glasses to inspect her langoustines and seems to approve. My scallops are cooked just right, tender and moist inside, on a bed of braised endives. Feminism will cease to be needed when the salary gap between men and women is closed, she says. Is this happening at Publicis? I ask, risking a second reference to the company. “Yes, but, first,” she pauses, “this is not my company, I am a shareholder, I have no operational role, I am actually forbidden to have one. But, yes, I have looked into it. Publicis is not a factory, so women can take half a day off and it’s not a problem … I keep an eye on salaries: it’s not bad, less bad than elsewhere, which is not enough, but it is changing. And promoting women, without quotas or anything like that, is a constant preoccupation. Mine, and that of Maurice Lévy [chairman and chief executive of Publicis and her father’s anointed successor]. A constant one.”
We’re told we need to breastfeed a child for six months! What can I say!
With a hint of shame, I ask the “juggling” question – the one typically asked of working mothers but not of working fathers. “I have probably done everything badly! But I had someone to help and I took a part-time teaching job. I would be there after school and take over for the homework. But when I was writing a book, I was horrible. The children knew those periods were not great for them.” Fortunately, her husband would come to the rescue, taking the children on weekend trips.
Badinter has reduced her langoustines to shells but I am still working on my purée when I ask if she always wanted to be a writer. “You know,” she says, “I am one of thousands of women influenced by de Beauvoir.” I have read that the two women met. “Yes, at her place, near the Montparnasse cemetery,” she confirms. The occasion was a documentary film about The Second Sex (1949) – in which, famously, de Beauvoir asserts “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. It is an argument that underlies L’Amour en plus (1980), Badinter’s first bestseller and an attack on the notion of maternal instinct.
“I found a mother-goddess, solemn,” she says, straightening up to imitate de Beauvoir’s posture. A waiter whisks our plates away. “Her ideas gave us wings. Those ideas are being eroded now. She didn’t want children. Marriage, she didn’t care! To tell us girls in the 1950s and 1960s that we could live without being married, and that if we didn’t want children we could have an abortion, it was revolutionary.”
My millefeuille floats towards me, two layers of airy whipped cream between thin caramelised pastry. There’s a problem with the chocolate cream, though. “It’s not cream, it’s not what I call cream,” Badinter exclaims. But the waiter has vanished. “Never mind.”
“My feminism fought for women’s right to use their bodies as they choose. We have the right to have an abortion; we have the right to have the sexual activity we want. If a woman wants to rent out her body, that’s no one’s business. Why on earth would the state meddle with the sexual life of two agreeing parties? Prostitutes who are independent and not coerced by a third party have the right to prostitute themselves. It’s a question of principle.” A week after our lunch, Le Monde publishes an editorial backing her views, word for word.
In her most recent book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women (2010; the English translation was published last year), Badinter criticises the pressure exerted on mothers to, for example, breastfeed on demand for years, or to sleep with their babies. The concept of maternal instinct is resurfacing, she laments, in the wake of radical green movements that tell us that nature is superior. Those concepts, though popular in the US, haven’t encountered much success in France, where only half of newborns are breastfed after one month.
“We’re told we need to breastfeed for six months otherwise we have done nothing for our child! For a year even, like some in Scandinavia, to protect boys from prostate cancer when they are 60. What can I say!” She thumps the table with her fist. “We forget that postwar children who were fed with the bottle are those benefiting from an amazing lengthening of life expectancy!”
We both have stalled halfway through our desserts when the waiter shows up. “It’s too heavy. I thought it would be cream. It’s mousse,” she informs him. He offers a sorbet in compensation but she declines and opts for a “café with a bit of hot milk”. Single espresso for me. The desserts stay, though we don’t manage to finish them.
I ask about the criticism of religion in her work. “The religions of the Book have always fought against what would liberate women or facilitate their lives.” There was a Catholic group to oppose the epidural, for example, she says. Badinter, who has campaigned against girls wearing veils at school or women in niqabs in the street, worries about religious radicals “taking over” politics and imposing their way in the public domain.
“We talk about Muslim radicals all the time but it’s more general.” Politicians are too soft on the issue for fear of being perceived as intolerant, she says. “Secularism is part of France’s DNA. It’s the heritage of the Enlightenment.”
When I diffidently ask about her personal approach to religion, she answers coherently: “It’s private.” She adds: “Religion is a personal dialogue with God if you believe in God.”
I am curious to know more about her family. Her father, Marcel Bleu-stein, the son of a Russian-Jewish émigré furniture seller, joined the French resistance as a pilot during the war (when his code name, which he retained, was Blanchet).
“My father had a major influence on me. Less because he was a résistant and had a beautiful war than because he took care of me magnificently ever since I was very little. He gave me strength. I owe him a lot, for his interest in me, his love, the stimulation he never ceased to be. He made me believe that if I worked hard and had ambitions, the world would be mine. Just like de Beauvoir. It was so exciting.”
If fathers took care of their daughters the way he did, women would never see themselves as victims, she says. Though her father was disappointed when she found inspiration in philosophy rather than in advertising, it’s probably not a coincidence, she confesses, that she chose a world “radically opposed to his.
“He tried everything, absolutely everything. But he had a very, very strong personality and, if I wanted to exist, it was certainly not by going under his wing. He blew a wind of freedom, and I said, ‘Ciao Papa!’”
Anne-Sylvaine Chassany is the FT’s private equity correspondent
108 Bd du Montparnasse, 75014 Paris
Evian water €7.50
Chateldon water €7.50
Langoustines rôties €45.50
Poêlée de Saint-Jacques €42.00
Crème chocolat €15.00
Café x 2 €8.00
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