Film Review – Debout Les Femmes!

A new film highlights the terrible working conditions for care workers in France, and the start of a fight to change them


Debout les Femmes! had its German premiere just in time for International Women’s Day (or International Working Women’s Day, as Clara Zetkin originally dubbed it). The film’s subject is the incredibly low wages and insanitary working conditions for (almost exclusively female) care workers. The workers affected range from those who visit pensioners to give them baths and haircuts to the cleaners in France’s National Assembly, who are paid below the minimum wage.

The first scenes were shot at the beginning of 2020, but then the film takes a dramatic turn as Covid hits and a desperate situation becomes even worse. Hospital workers are not provided any protective clothing so have to spend their already sparse spare time sewing plastic coats. Still it’s not as bad as the hospital down the road where they’re wearing bin liners. Workers are supposed to be keeping a safe social distance, but that’s not so easy when you’re giving an old man a bath.

Film of Emmanuel Macron explaining how everything is in hand appears alongside women explaining their day-to-day working lives. Most of them have lost their permanent contracts which means that they’re now only paid for the hours at work, not in travelling from one place to another. This results in people working 60 or more hours a week in a part time job. Many are also working 6 or 7 day weeks, and getting up at 4 o’clock every morning.

Enter the unlikely duo of Bruno Bonnell and François Ruffin – two MPs from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Bonnell is first introduced to us as “France’s Donald Trump” – he presents the French edition of The Apprentice and was elected as part of Macron’s cobbled together coalition La République En Marche! Ruffin is an MP for the far Left La France Insoumise (LFI), and is also one of the directors of the film.

Bonnell and Ruffin are co-sponsoring a parliamentary bill to improve working condition for low paid women workers. It’s easy to understand why Ruffin is on board – this is what the Left is supposed to do. Bonnell is a more contradictory character. A self-proclaimed capitalist, he appears to be one of the few businessmen with a social conscience. He even has a moving backstory of a disabled son who died as a child.

You could imagine having a drink with Bonnell and enjoying yourself, although maybe this is because the film concentrates on his bill with Ruffin and not his other politics. Bonnell and Ruffin listen attentively as women tell them about their desperate working conditions. They promise to get something done, and draw up a set of amendments to a parliamentary bill.

The problem lies in parliamentary majorities. Each bill is rejected by roughly the same number of votes. The only people voting for each amendment appear to be the 17 LFI deputies plus the occasional maverick like Bonnell. Not even the Greens or the Socialists are prepared to support better conditions for working class women. If the women are to win, it won’t be through the current parliament. We are unlikely to see much change after next month’s elections.

In the Q&A afterward Debout les Femmes!‘ German premiere, with producer Thibault Lhonneur and LFI MP Danièle Obono, there was some mild criticism that most of the film runs as a white male saviour story, where a couple of powerful men save some working class women, many of whom are migrants. In the film’s defence, it could be argued that precisely because of power imbalances, the women do not feel confident enough to fight for themselves. The criticism is justified nonetheless.

This is what makes the final scenes all the more important. Ruffin organises an alternative assembly of women inside the parliamentary building. The film stresses their gender, but it is just important that this is an assembly of working class women, who have been socialised into feeling that only other people are empowered to make decisions which affect their lives.

Debout les Femmes! ends in a sort of defeat. No-one gets a massive pay rise or improved conditions. But we do witness a development of consciousness that may lead to future victories. At the start of the film, the women are reading out a list of serious grievances which show how they are undervalued and ignored by society. By the end, they are standing up and demanding change.

A film which shows a change in consciousness is more effective – both politically and artistically – than one which shows endless victories and the inevitable drive towards world socialism. It has a dialectical quality which implies that greater victories are to come. I look forward to the sequel where working class women are leading the fight and gaining the significant gains that they so sorely deserve.