France has come a long way since it first allowed women to vote in 1944. While everything is still not perfect in terms of female representation, today, French women hold top roles, not only in government and business, but are also leading lights in the worlds of art and entertainment. Let’s meet a few of them.
Élisabeth Borne, French Prime Minister
Borne is only the second woman to hold the post of Prime Minister of France, the number two position in government after the President. As a child, she was a “ward of the French nation” after the death of her father, a member of the French Resistance, and as such received state support for her education. Borne earned a degree from France’s top engineering school, the École Polytechnique, before joining the French civil service. She worked her way up the ranks, and prior to becoming Prime Minister served as France’s minister of transport, minister of ecology, and minister of labor, earning a reputation as someone who gets things done.
Elisabeth Borne © Benoît Granier
Anne Hidalgo © Ines Dieleman
Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris
Hidalgo has been mayor of Paris since 2014, the first woman to hold the post, and previously served as first deputy mayor. She has focused on environmental issues during her time in office, limiting cars in parts of the city and adding bike lanes. In 2021, she approved a €250 million renovation of the Champs-Élysées, reducing space allocated to vehicles by half, turning roads into green and pedestrianized areas, and planting trees to improve air quality. Hidalgo was born in Spain, moved to France as a young child, and holds both French and Spanish citizenship. Expect to see a lot of Hidalgo next year, when Paris hosts the Summer Olympics.
Catherine Colonna © Scottish Government
Catherine Colonna, French Foreign Minister
Colonna is the first woman to hold the position of French foreign minister, one of the highest-ranking in the government. She studied at the École Nationale d’Administration, the elite training ground for French leaders, before entering the diplomatic corps. Colonna’s first posting was in the United States, after which she returned to France and held several roles before becoming the spokesperson for the French ministry of foreign affairs. From there she became the spokesperson for the Élysée Palace, serving as the official voice of the French presidency. After a stint in the private sector, Colonna returned to the foreign ministry as ambassador to Italy, then ambassador to the OECD, and finally to the United Kingdom, before assuming her current role.
Léa Seydoux © Georges Biard
Léa Seydoux, Actress
One of France’s best-known actresses, Seydoux was destined for a career in cinema—her grandfather is the CEO of the French film company Pathé. She has been nominated five times for the César award, France’s equivalent of the Oscars. Seydoux’s breakthrough role was in the controversial La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color), for which she won the top acting award at the Cannes Film Festival. She has expanded her career by appearing in English-language films like Midnight in Paris and The French Dispatch, and is perhaps best known as Dr. Madeleine Swann, the love interest of James Bond in the movies Spectre and No Time to Die.
Camille Cottin © Georges Biard
Camille Cottin, Actress
Cottin spent her teenage years in London and was working as a high school English teacher when she started theater classes and began her acting career. She first became known in France for her hidden-camera sketch series Connasse, later made into a film that earned her a César nomination as most promising French actress. Cottin’s international breakthrough was as the lead character in the French comedy series Dix pour cent (Call My Agent!), distributed worldwide by Netflix. Cottin starred opposite Matt Damon in the dramatic film Stillwater and has had major roles in House of Gucci and the upcoming A Haunting in Venice.
Aya Nakamura © Other Newviews
Aya Nakamura, Singer
Named by The New York Times as “one of the most important acts in Europe, both musically and socially,” Nakamura was born in Mali to a family of poets and storytellers. Named Aya Danioko, she moved to France as a child and took the stage name Nakamura after a character in a science fiction drama. Her music is a combination of Afro-beat, R&B, and pop, and five of her singles have topped the French charts, as has one of her albums. Nakamura has won multiple musical awards in France and in Africa, and her song Djadja was a hit all over Europe.
Business and Economics
Christine Lagarde © European Parliament
Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank
Frequently named as one of the world’s most powerful women, trailblazer Lagarde began her career as an attorney at the international tax advisory firm Baker & McKenzie, rising to become its first woman president. She then entered public service and held several senior French government roles before being named French finance minister, the first woman to hold such a role not only in France but in any of the world’s leading economies. Lagarde later became Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund before taking her current post as President of the European Central Bank, in both cases the first woman to hold these positions.
Anne Rigail, Head of Air France
Rigail has spent her entire career in the airline industry, after graduating from one of France’s top universities, the École des Mines. From there she joined French domestic carrier Air Inter, which was later acquired by Air France. There she was put in charge of client services at Paris Orly airport, and then took a series of progressively more senior positions. Regail has held roles responsible for ground operations at Charles de Gaulle airport, for flight crew management, for customer experience, and more. In 2018 she was named directrice générale (CEO) of Air France, the first woman to hold the position.
Leïla Slimani, Journalist and Author
Slimani burst into public consciousness with her blockbuster Chanson Douce (Lullaby / The Perfect Nanny), a psychological thriller that was a huge best seller in France. The book won the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary award, and has been translated into dozens of languages. Born in Morocco, Slimani moved to France for college and began her career as a journalist but shifted to writing novels after being arrested in Tunisia during the Arab Spring. She is now working on a trilogy of novels based on her family’s history in France and Morocco and is President Macron’s personal representative to the organization of French-speaking countries. She is also the chair of judges for this year’s International Booker Prize.
Leila Slimani © Heike Huslage Koch
Fred Vargas © Marcello Casal
Fred Vargas, Scientist and Author
Fred Vargas is the pen name of Frédérique Audoin-Rouseau, a medieval historian and archaeologist. She has worked as a researcher at the Pasteur Institute and the French National Center for Scientific Research, and is one of the world’s leading experts on the Black Death. Vargas began writing crime novels as a way to relax from her work. But her hobby took a turn when her books became best-sellers. Many have been translated into English, and Vargas is the first author to have won the British Crime Writer’s Association Gold Dagger award three times, given to the best crime novel of the year.
Anne Sophie Pic © Jarvin Jarles Vines
Anne-Sophie Pic, Chef
Pic was born into the restaurant business, with a grandfather who earned three Michelin stars. Pic did not join the family business at first but felt the call when her father died and Restaurant Pic lost one of its three coveted stars. She then took over the kitchen, despite having no formal training as a chef, and soon enough the lost star had been recovered. Pic then expanded her empire, opening new restaurants in Switzerland, England, Singapore, and France, all with Michelin stars. Her restaurants now hold a total of 10 Michelin stars and she was once named the top female chef in the world.
Dominique Crenn © City Foodsters
Dominique Crenn, Chef
As an infant, Crenn was adopted by a couple in Brittany, where her father was a friend of Charles de Gaulle. But she never fit into the conservative France of the 1960s, being of North African heritage and a tomboy. And while she longed to be a chef, that wasn’t something French women did then. So she moved to San Francisco to begin her career, audaciously landing a job with a top chef by telling him, “I’m French so I know how to cook.” With her restaurant Atelier Crenn, she became the first female chef in the United States to earn three Michelin stars. Crenn has once been named top female chef in the world and she just opened her first restaurant in France, Golden Poppy in Paris.
Lead photo credit : © RossHelen / shutterstock
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