The minister and the prostitutes

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the minister for women’s rights in President François Hollande’s new Socialist Party government, is by any measure an extraordinary person. The Moroccan-born daughter of a building worker, she is 34, has three children, became a councillor in Lyon in her early twenties to oppose Le Pen’s fascists and earned her political spurs as the spokesperson for Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s ex, in her 2006 run at the presidency.

Now she has taken on the daunting task of tackling gender inequality and sexual harassment in this deeply Catholic country. In one of her first moves, Vallaud-Belkacem is planning a conference to mobilise international support against prostitution.

Good luck with that. Prostitution is of course profoundly exploitative in its nature, and in recent years has involved an alarming rise in human trafficking. But prohibition of the trade itself has little chance of working as long as women don’t have equal earning rights with men, and as long as bourgeois morality condemns women to be either saints or sluts.

In a country beset by growing inequality and social problems, putting Vallaud-Belkacem out front as the acceptable face of government seems all too much like window dressing.


The president himself has a few image problems when it comes to women. His new partner, Valérie Trierweiler, has become the butt of every satirist in town since she tweeted against Ségolène Royal’s run for parliament and helped lose her the seat. Her book just out, François Hollande, President, is an extraordinarily self-obsessed take on the election campaign in which she claims to have suffered anguish when her partner greeted his ex with a perfectly normal kiss on both cheeks.

Naturally Le Canard Enchaîné, the weekly which is something like a French equivalent of Private Eye, is now running a Valerie T column on its front page. This week it has her complaining about him greeting Aung San Su Kyi, and promising: “If he starts receiving all the beautiful persecuted women on earth, don’t worry, I’ll be tweeting my head off.”


To the more civilised side of life in Paris. On our first day here we had the delightful experience of meeting Sylvia Pollock and her family. Sylvia, a highly intelligent, warm-hearted expat, is the widow of artist Charles Pollock, less well known than his brother Jackson but a very significant American abstract expressionist painter who came to live in Paris in the 1970s. We owed our introduction to Sylvia to our great mutual friend Terence Maloon, Australia’s finest curator. Ten years ago he wrote the book The Art of Charles Pollock: Sweet Reason, which did much to bring the painter back to the attention of the art world. It was heartening to learn today that the Pollocks’ daughter Francesca is organising an exhibition of seven American abstract expressionists, her father included, to be held in Alsace next June.

On Francesca’s recommendation we set off for the Pompidou Centre to see the exhibition Gerhard Richter: Panorama, on until September 26. It’s a major retrospective and Richter’s own path to abstraction was a revelation to me: from photo-paintings of the 1960s to his homage to romanticism and then the liberating use of line and colour. His work is endlessly inventive: it both mirrors universal developments in painting and expresses the particular angst of 20th century Germany, in a suite of intimate portraits and in his 1988 series on the deaths of the Baader-Meinhof group. But always he returns to the celebration of painting. It is, he says, “one of the most basic human capacities, like dancing and singing, that make sense, that stay with us, as something human”.


We’re in Paris for the first time in 20 years, staying in the Marais, again on a recommendation from our friend Terence. It’s a wonderful area of the city. Socially it’s like Sydney’s Darlinghurst and London’s Soho rolled into one, but with fabulous French restaurants and cafes and far more stunning architecture. The crowd is young and full of life – we’ve arrived just in time for the local Gay Pride weekend – but the buildings are old and beautiful.

There’s the superb Place des Vosges, the oldest designed square in Paris, built in the early 17th century by Henri IV who never lived there, though Cardinal Richelieu did. And there’s also a series of astonishingly lovely buildings including the home of the National Library, the Hotel Sully and the Musee Carnavalet, the museum of the city itself. We’re staying in a little hotel in the rue de Sévigné, named after the lady of letters.

We got here from London very quickly – our first Eurostar trip. The train takes just two hours and 20 minutes and if you book ahead it only costs $56. Being here doesn’t have to cost the earth.

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