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What do racisms look like on the cusp of this twenty-first century? Are they taking predictable form with familiar actors? Are racisms changing or merely our analyses of them? Are they what those who track racisms‘ histories expect them to be? I am concerned that they are not. This paper is an effort to address why the French extreme right‘s policies are “easy to think” for a broad population who consider themselves neither xenophobic, racist nor politically “extreme” in any sense. In part, it is about how we write about the abhorrent, why we treat it as aberrant and whether it is a conceit to imagine that ethnographers and historians of race have something to say about the quotidian face of contemporary racial politics.
Over the last 15 years, my research has focused on race in the history of French and Dutch colonialisms, but over the last two years, I have begun studying a very different racial landscape in southern France. Here, the racial politics that saturate Aix-en-Provence and its surroundings have produced at once a chillingly familiar and unfamiliar social world; one in which far-right politics and the racial discourse that goes along with it command enormous presence and one in which issues of race are continually effaced – irrelevant – a space in which nothing “happens at all.”
In one reading, l998 was a year in which extreme-right platforms and candidates moved from the menacing margins of French politics well into the center. It was the first time in the last 25 years (since the Front National (FN) was established in l972) that a number of center-right candidates in regional campaigns accepted FN backing, acknowledged they needed the FN to win and (invoking “Vichy”) were labeled “collabo” for doing so. It was the year in which France‘s president, Jacques Chirac, made an unprecedented address on national television to say what many already knew: that such compromises with the Front were endorsements of a “xenophobic” and “racist” France. It was a year in which media personalities who had long resisted interviewing Front leaders conceded that despite refusing to give them air time, they would not disappear. It was a year in which the progressive press could print headlines sounding the alarm that the “Front was everywhere,” but just six months later, otherwise sensible persons and public figures could applaud the World Cup victory of France‘s rainbow-colored soccer team as a sign of the real France and as an anti-racist victory.
Similarly, this past fall and winter, there has been a furor over the “implosion” of the FN as its longstanding leader, Le Pen, and his former dauphin, Megret, are in public standoff. But in both cases the emphasis seems misplaced: how could the evidence of two decades of increased support for National Front candidates (no French extreme-right party has ever survived as long) be annulled by a World Cup post-victory celebration of racial harmony? Why was one player‘s popularity, that of Zidane, the son of a “poor Algerian immigrant” (evinced in street chants, “Zidane for President”), interpreted as evidence of a meaningful multicultural romance rather than a one-night stand? How could the president of the French National Commission on the Rights of Man claim the World Cup “inflicted a defeat for racism” (12 August l998)? In the streets and in the press, one could hear people say: “See we‘ve got them now. The FN has been silenced by this outburst of racial goodwill. The Marseillaise belongs to us again.” Even left-wing weeklies wrote of a “real national communion,” a French anti-racist “dream,” a “plebiscite” for nationalism without exclusions, what intellectuals of diverse leanings labeled a nationalism without chauvinism that was truly French.
Optimism is one thing, political delusion is another. My intent here is to analyze neither responses to the World Cup nor recent euphoria around the FN‘s “civil war.” Rather, I take those responses as indices of a much deeper set of misconstruals about what makes up the force of the radical right, what constitutes racism in France today and what relevance the FN brand of racism has for its hard- and soft-line constituencies. That people expected the FN to be unsettled and irreparably damaged by the nationalist ecstasy around the World Cup derives in part from misidentifying what racialized discourses have looked like in the past and therefore what distinguishes them today.
“An-Other Year in Provence”
The research that began with the year I spent in Provence has not been “fieldwork” in the sustained sense that has defined ethnography. Instead, it has been one that one might call “ethnography in the public sphere;” for what characterizes its context and “locale” are the movements of people and politics, discourses and differences that crisscross local and national contexts, private lives and public media.
I went to National Front demonstrations in Marseilles, attended court hearings at the provincial magistrates in Aix, surfed the Front‘s websites, read Front newspapers and those against it. I talked with women and men affiliated with the Front‘s parent-teacher organizations, followed Front candidates as they “worked” local markets in municipal elections, spoke with Front-elected city officials and those city workers fired when the Front moved in. I watched television interviews with FN leaders, spoke with journalists and lawyers, visited the Front‘s national headquarters, sought out cafes where I had been told there would be lots to hear in an effort to understand what place racialized politics had in people‘s lives, while trying to figure out the scope and nature of the space it occupied in the public sphere.
Provence is the countryside made famous by Cézanne, Picasso and Van Gogh and more recently by Peter Mayle‘s best-selling bedside reader, A Year in Provence, de rigeur for those with longings for loquacious rural souls who dish out fragrant soups and earthy breads. Mayle‘s book is so singularly unpopular in Aix, I thought I might call this paper “An-other year in Provence” for the departement in which Aix is located gives way onto Shell refinery smells, less seemly visions and vistas. An hour and a half in any direction gets you to Toulon, Marignane, Orange and Vitrolles, the now infamous sites of National Front victories where as much as 45 percent of their populations have voted for platforms committed to “France for the French,” “French first,” expanded police forces, exclusion of welfare for “immigrants” (a misnomer in itself) and cash bonuses for couples producing “French” babies.
This area is the radical right‘s epicenter, and the small town of Vitrolles one of its prime “laboratories,” as both the Front and its opponents agree. Vitrolles-en-Provence – as its FN officials have renamed it to emphasize its cultural attractions and tourist appeal – is a site where the FN‘s national programs have been rehearsed, where experiments in vigilantism, cultural censorship and barred entry to schools for those of the wrong shade have been tried to gauge whether they scandalize too many people or are too tepid to mobilize more support for the Front‘s constituencies.
The story told in this way is dramatic but almost cliched. We know its elements, we can imagine its actors – men of repressed violence, a region beset by a population of uprooted ex-colonials longing for a long lost “French Algeria,” people whose visions are narrow, whose employment opportunities are bleak, those desperate and too easily duped by the wrong answers to troubling questions.
But there is another side to the Front that is less easy to demonize, one less dissonant with mainstream public concerns. Its proponents speak in the language of democracy and liberty and against a voracious global capitalist economy. They condemn violence. It is one harder to distinguish from other positions. It is one that those who assume they “know” the FN are less apt to hear. For perhaps what is most striking about the platform of the Front, the persons who make up its constituency, the issues that it raises, is how unexceptional and commonplace they are. Take, for instance, the FN‘s platform and practices around increased urban security. Virtually every effort to outline its political program has described its heavy- handed crackdown on crime and juvenile delinquency. In Vitrolles in spring 1998, people talked in whispers about municipal funds swiped from cultural centers and reallocated to pay for more police. Vitrolles‘s FN city officials spoke unabashedly about the possible benefits of withholding state welfare programs to families who could not control their youth.
On the face of it, the position is a quintessentially FN and racist one: juvenile delinquency touches poor families and many poor families in urban France are of North African origin. It is a policy, if implemented, with discriminatory effects designed to target those most dependent on state resources, those living in badly maintained state-subsidized tenements either unemployed or with low paying jobs with dismal prospects and everything to lose.
But that is both true and false. If one looks at reportage that has not been on the FN over the last two years, it is clear that not only the Front is concerned with these issues. How different, in fact, is this position from the parliamentary report on juvenile delinquency, issued by the socialist government, that recommended prison punishments for parents who could not sufficiently monitor their young? ( Provence, 17 April 1998). Or the proposal a month later of the right-wing mayor of Aix-les-Bains – a non-FN town of 28,000 – to withhold state welfare from families with delinquent youths ( Le Monde, 25 May 1998)?
What is disconcerting is the slippage between FN rhetoric and that of the more general public sphere, the chameleon-like form that FN positions assume and the fact that it is increasingly difficult to identify a purely FN position, in part because the Front has been so effective at appropriating the rhetoric of the right, the left, the extremes and everyone in- between. It is not only that the radical right has appropriated the language of the French revolution and patriotic nationalism, or that it has played on anxieties over national identity prompted by a future with a borderless Europe, compounded by fears of what the substitution of the new Euro dollar for the Franc will bring. It is not only that it has disabled more open discussions of immigration by making any talk of immigration akin to a racist discourse and appropriated it as their own. But keywords of the liberal state ring hollow when the language of “democracy,” “individual liberty” and “the public good” appear as often in FN speeches as among its opponents.
Even accusations of racism – so long directed at the FN‘s leaders and their platforms – are no longer confined to anti-FN discourse alone. During l998, the FN mounted a new discursive campaign, claiming that the problem in France today is not its racist tendencies – which it adamantly denies – but rather the anti-patriotic, “anti-French racism” of its “attackers.” It is they who more seriously threaten national identity and thus the very essence of France. One could dismiss this as merely a clever ruse, a distorting twist of the term “racism” into its very opposite. Here, the FN‘s definition of “racism” criticizes the country‘s current leaders for being too swayed by a “cosmopolitan” intellectual left more committed to globalization than to local French interests – not unlike Pat Robertson‘s injunctions against a conspiratorial “New World Order” spearheaded by a deracinated intellectual left. In the FN scenario, such “anti-French racism” victimizes those who are “truly” French by encroaching on their jobs, denigrating their cultural heritage, ruining education and infringing on their basic human rights.
But the politics of appropriation has gone both ways: the FN may be talking with ease about their defense of liberty, but those fiercely opposed to its xenophobia are working from categories not dissimilar to those of the FN. For example, public discussions are now unproblematically about a “deluge of immigrants” pouring into the country, despite the fact that immigration has not increased in France for the last 20 years. Mainstream politicians unaligned with the radical right still talk about the pros and cons of a “national preference”– whether or not they agree with the FN‘s basic tenets: strict quotas on immigration, a “return” of immigrants to their countries of origin and preferred access of some to medical benefits, social assistance and other citizenry rights.
These are more than deft language games but form part of a broader cultural repertoire of verbal and visual images with strong appeal. The point is that while the tactics of the Front can be characterized as often excessive and unprincipled, its internal logic is powerful with ready answers to hard questions. What it posits as “problems” are identifiable, while those of its opponents are often not. What is impressive is not so much the rhetoric of Front leaders – on which Front-watchers have focused for years – but rather the discursive space it offers its potential, non-committed sympathizers as well as its militants. Almost everyone expresses their distrust of traditional politicians and politics.
The frontal attack on the Front‘s racist and xenophobic qualities over the last few years has enabled some discourses and closed off others. Some might argue that it has created an engaged discussion of racism in the public sphere. But one could argue the opposite; namely, that with so much attention focused on the Front, far less attention has been paid to the sympathies of a much broader French population that hold visions and political principles compatible with those of their more blatantly exclusionary FN counterparts. A frequently heard statement in France today among those who distance themselves from the FN and are decidedly not its supporters is one that begins: “I‘m not a racist, but...,” and then is filled in with injunctions about why too many immigrants is the real problem of contemporary France. Treating the FN as if it had a monopoly on racist visions and racist practices leaves little room to examine the broader terrain that nurtures it and on which it rests. For example, “mothers of the Front” spoke forcefully about the problem of discipline but so did those women whose political affiliations were squarely elsewhere.
Beyond the Extremes of the Far Right: Are There Reasoning Women and Men?
FN militants and constituents have been pathologized in specific ways: they are treated as those outside reason, persons unduly swayed, deluded by crises of identity or morally weakened by disempowerment. Considered outside the humanist tradition, they are in any context and all instances labeled irrational and unreasonable men (sic). As such, their fear is taken as the FN‘s most powerful “common denominator.”
But one could start from another, less intuitive premise: not that the radical right is full of fearful malcontents on the margins of French society but of reasoning women as well as men. Not “monsters” but as one FN watcher put it, “faces that might occupy the ranks of any political formation.” What happens if one starts from the assumption that the force of the Front comes from its nuanced, even subtle cultural politics? What happens if racisms are not the excesses and anomalies of modern states, bureaucratic machines gone out of wack, but fundamental technologies of them, as Foucault suggested some 20 years ago to an unreceptive College de France audience? These are unpopular premises, but they may offer a better starting point to understand the FN‘s appeal and the popularity of its claims.
The National Front‘s commitment to the trinity of “Family, Work and Fatherland” has cross-cultural relevance as well as cross-class and cross-national appeal. It commands a moral righteousness that finds parallels among those situated in the U.S. “deep south,” in North America‘s outback west and in France profonde. These images have informed nineteenth-century racisms in colony and metropole, have appealed to women as much as men and appear in nationalistic tracts of different political persuasions.
But the FN‘s nuanced cultural politics comes in other forms. Its poster art is pop, catchy and impressive. Some posters make subtle commentaries, such as the one, hot off the press, I was proudly shown in the basement of the FN‘s national headquarters. It shows cartoon-like figures: one wasted, disheveled, drug-ridden student of left-wing vintage with the year l968 written above his head; the other a well-groomed, bright-eyed youth with l998 over his head in bold face type. Another poster stated “REBELLE-TOI!”(REBEL!), JOIN THE FRONT.” What could better invoke the fight against the status quo, an alignment with the right revolution on the side of the Front and France‘s future leaders? As the retired school teacher from the south who sorted posters reminded me, “see, we have our own intellectuals too.”
It is not just poster culture that is on the mark. The FN‘s cyberspace connections are informative, clear and interactive for those who join. Its website is updated regularly with statistics on local and national elections, with new political tracts, on-line copies of FN speeches and excerpts from the anti-FN press. In the tradition of the French communist party, the FN also hosts an array of summer universities, institutes for “cultural action,” scientific meetings, colloquia for journalists and educational workshops. FN rallies have been glitzy light-and-sound shows with singers of color blasting rap and reggae music. Radio Le Pen offers non-stop news.
While this may seem good evidence of a clear FN position and well-honed rhetoric, never has it been so difficult to isolate and specify what constitutes the discourse of the extreme right in France. This may seem contradictory, but at a very fundamental level it is not.
Figuring the FN: Analyses of the Man, the Movement, the Nation
The problems in specifying what is specific to the FN are strongly reflected in changes in how journalists, scholars and activists have profiled the extreme right and the emphasis they place on Le Pen, its founder and leader. Over the last five years, there has been a virtual explosion in the literature about the “FN phenomenon” that displays a very distinct set of registers in which that phenomenon is identified and cast. While typologies never hold fast, one can identify several shifts in emphasis that run from a focus on the leader Le Pen, to the FN as a fascist institution and to the radical right as a reflection of French society itself.
The first register conforms to what one might call a “big man theory of history,” or the “cult of the man.” In such analyses, the FN‘s power to persuade was framed as solely based on its extraordinary leader, his debating skills and rhetorical flourish. Underwriting such accounts is the notion that radical right politics is not what explains the rise of the FN. On the contrary, people are pulled to the FN‘s extremisms almost accidentally, drawn to Le Pen‘s force as a leader. Ergo, if the FN is Le Pen then it is only a short-lived, conjunctural phenomenon that would reasonably weaken with his fall. (Thus titles such as In the Shadow of Le Pen, The Le Pen Effect, Le Pen: the Words or The Said and the Unstated of Le Pen.) The recent rise of Bruno Megret does not undermine that model. Now the focus is on his more youthful style and panache. The “big men” are changing, but not the structure of the analysis.
Journalists have a penchant for flashy newsworthy personalities, but even they can no longer argue that the Front is only Le Pen. Optimistic sorts who once imagined that the FN would dissolve with Le Pen‘s demise now predict the very opposite; namely that the FN seems to be taking on new force as the offensive brashness of Le Pen is replaced by those of more respectable style. If being brash and outspoken were hallmarks of the FN‘s earlier years, now it is just the opposite. If being outrageous and provocative was the strategy of an earlier moment – confusing the camps, tangling the terms of what is possible to discuss publicly signals an appeal to a different set of sensibilities today.
This second register of analysis gives less emphasis to Le Pen per se than to the nature of the Front itself, its recruitment strategies, its partisans and its institutional frame. Demographic analyses of regional and national elections have made a continual effort to identify the specific populations that have succumbed to the FN, with focus on their idiosyncrasies and on the susceptibilities of those that might “fall” in the future.
This demographics of blame has had lots of targets: some pointed to “the aged,” others to hard-line nostalgics for colonialism and/or those fearful of change. Others focused on the particular attraction of the FN for young males, ignoring the numerous women who have voted for it. Many studies have addressed the regional clustering of FN support in the troubled working class outskirts of Paris and of southern France.
These studies certainly have something to say about the nature of FN support, but perhaps more to say about what researchers expected to find: namely, evidence that the FN is a decidedly non-French phenomenon. But much as it is no longer possible to uphold that the Vichy regime was a foreign imposition on an unwilling French population, so too have analyses turned away from this search for a foreign etymology. No longer seeking the anomalous nature of the FN within an otherwise republican French society, some analyses have sought other roots, as one recent title puts it, FN, Made In France. Emphasis here has been more on the FN as a product of French nationalism gone awry, as an accurate mirror of the ills of French society or alternately as a distorted mirror of its malaise. Here commentaries have turned to the making of an endemically xenophobic movement.
But what happens if Michel Foucault was right that racism is not part of only certain state formations (be they fascist, capitalist or socialist) but fundamental to the making of the modern state itself. To assess the force of the extreme right, we should be looking beyond the FN‘s electoral successes and media presence to the racialized field it has helped to landscape in order to assess how much it governs a wide range of gestures, dictates the behaviors of those unsympathetic to it and shapes the rules rather than the particular strategies of the game. We might ask another (Foucauldian) question: not what is its aim, its strategy and its tactics, but what are its practical effects?
For example, is the “culture of fear” that surrounds it produced by the FN or those who oppose it? Is it generated out of FN practices or the result of the discourse of its opposition that has created that effect? The answer is not obvious, in part because cultures of fear, like power itself, permeate social relations in a wide political field. If power is defined by the capacity to impose the categories of discourse and practice, then the FN is a strong player. The FN has both reproduced a culture of fear and ensured that it reproduces itself. This was strikingly evident in watching the effect of the FN victory in Vitrolles. After nearly half the population voted for the FN in the last elections (and it did not seem to matter, as some people claimed, that many in Vitrolles had only registered a “protest vote” against the preceding spendthrift, socialist mayor), people repeatedly talked about an atmosphere in town that was tense; they felt discomfort even in greeting their neighbors and a newly heightened distrust and avoidance – not unlike a new brand of terror.
But discourses are neither homogeneous nor shared. In Vitrolles this spring, it was clear that “security” was a prevailing trope with multiple senses. Thus the mayor‘s office boasted in its monthly magazine that “security in ‘98 was still better than ‘97!” with the introduction of more police dogs, equestrian police, more surveillance cameras and a new “rapid intervention police brigade.” In contrast, young women in Vitrolles‘s state housing complexes saw the issue of security the other way around; they described something like a state of siege, of a police presence so intense that they and their friends were uncomfortable walking about at night – they only felt the streets were safe and “secure” in the absence of police in the light of day.
The Family Front: On the Gender Politics of the Radical Right
The point of looking at scholarship on the FN is not to conclude that the analyses have all been wrong, but rather to question the assumptions that organize those frames. At one of the first Front demonstrations I attended in fall l997 on the waterfront in Marseilles, two angry and vocal elderly women stood in the midst of a large crowd chiding “France” for not upholding its democratic principles. Assuming they were anti-FN demonstrators, I was impressed with their gutsy stance until realizing they were staunch Front supporters and that the day‘s slogan, “we‘ve had enough” (of liberalism, immigrants, anti-Front attacks) was on their lips too. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the event, only my assumptions about it.
As one looks to the issues that have been omitted from the current research agenda on the French radical right, nothing is more striking than the singular effacement of its gender politics. If the issue of gender politics is examined at all, it focuses on how extreme right parties view women rather than how women view them. Both academic and journalistic commentary and coverage have focused on the FN and men: on the male elite that formulates its policies; on the young male immigrants at which its policies are aimed; and on the insecure and unemployed male population to which it supposedly has its strongest appeal. While men have made up the majority of the Front‘s voting public, the fact remains that as much as 25 percent of the voting population who have voted for the FN are women, a percentage that has been decisive for the narrow margin by which the FN has won local elections. Not examining the appeal of the Front for a large female constituency seems in part to be based on the unstated assumption that those women who vote for the Front are following their fathers, brothers, sons – their men.
What is more, in the last few years women unexpectedly have emerged in key positions of the FN‘s leadership, as both pawns and strong players in the Front‘s juggling of posts and persons in local politics. As FN figures such as Le Pen, Megret, and de Chevalier have been disqualified from elections, their wives have replaced them as candidates in mayoral and regional campaigns.
However, what makes the lack of attention to female voters most surprising is the fact that many of the major themes played out in public discourse are about areas of life thought to be controlled by and of special importance to women: primary school education, daycare, childrearing, family planning and sexual morality. In the Front‘s favored slogan, “Family, Fatherland and Work,” it is “family” that is first. Emphasis on the male contours of the Front fails to address critical arenas in which the extreme right has made its presence and power felt – all domains in which women have been actively called upon to police the boundaries between the moral and the immoral, between what is public and private, between what should be handled at school and what are affairs of parenting and the home.
In trying to learn something about the ways in which women of the Front process its programs and present its appeal, we focused more pointedly in that direction this spring. Among others, we interviewed women who worked for Vitrolles‘s FN-run city government, mothers with school-age children who were well educated, well heeled and politically learned. Unlike those women in the teacher-student organizations backed by the FN who categorically refused any association or sympathy for its politics, these were women of the Front – young Megretistes, who characterized Le Pen as an outdated model for the FN and who bet their futures on Megret.
Schools are the problem, but the women cast their net of concern wider in an idiom that frequently invokes the problem of figurative and literal “thresholds.” Here it is the FN that polices the dangerous borders between France and its outside (with immigration quotas), the FN that understands the need to police the entries to schools, the FN that is vigilant about what belongs in school and in the home. The women are disconcerted by contemporary parenting styles and blame “some” parents for neglecting the moral rearing of their young, for not instilling a sense of “good taste,” for abandoning jobs to teachers that they should be doing themselves. They too blame teachers for not leaving their politics at home. When they tell us that mothers should have the opportunity not to work, we ask why they do. Madame C. sighs, and says it is she who suffers, that she (and France) underwent a bit “too much feminism” when she was growing up, that work hours have been not designed with women in mind. On the other hand, both she and her co-worker adamantly oppose propositions for gender parity, which they refer to as an “aberration of the Left.”
Future Directions/Old Connections
What is striking about the Front‘s interventions in public education, welfare, immigration policy, library acquisitions, theater openings and scholarship, is the face of racial thinking it fashions for France and a wider European community for the twenty-first century. It is neither a new racism nor a replica of the old. France today harbors a racial discourse that is flexible and porous, malleable, modernizing and imbued with cultural currency. Those who pose this as a new racism, as a cultural racism fundamentally distinct from racisms of the past, are missing how much colonial racisms spoke in a language of cultural competencies, “good taste” and discrepant parenting values.
In short, the porousness we assign to the contemporary concept of race is a fluidity inherent in the concept itself and not a hallmark of our postmodern critique –much less our postcolonial moment.
Still, what the face of racism looks like on the cusp of this twenty-first century cannot be derived from its earlier templates alone. Nor can it be derived from the last three years of the FN‘s rapid ascension or its more recent succession of splits and failures in mainstream politics. That more than two-thirds of France in the last summer‘s poll could avow that it was sympathetic to at least some of the National Front‘s platform should remind us that racisms never have (and do not today exist) in distilled form. They are as easily embraced by those eager for change as those who are not. Racial discourses can serve central state concerns as much as those opposed to them. They can herald utopian visions as much as nostalgic ones. Predicating an understanding of today‘s racism on a flattened, reductive history of what racism once looked like may be consoling, but it is neither helpful nor redemptive. Genealogies of racisms must reckon with racisms‘ power to rupture and selectively and strategically recuperate the past at the same time. We need to take seriously the ways in which exclusionary politics have created and continue to produce a repertoire of responses that its adherents see neither as racist nor exclusionary, but as reasonable, measured, even compassionate common sense.
Ann Laura Stoler is professor of history and anthropology at the U-M. This paper is based on presentations delivered as the keynote address for the conference, “Making History, Constructing Race,” at the University of Victoria and for the workshop, “Europe and Algeria,” held at the Johns Hopkins Center in Bologna, Italy in May. A longer version appears in Rethinking Post-Colonialism , ed. David Goldberg. (Oxford: Blackwell, forthcoming).
Michalina Vaughn, “The Extreme Right in France: ‘Le Penisme‘ or the Politics of Fear,” in The Far Right in Western and Eastern Europe, eds. Luciano Cheles, Ronnie Ferguson and Michalina Vaughan (London: Longman, 1995): 215-33.
Michel Foucault, Il Faut Defendre la Societe: Cours au College de France, l976 (Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 1997), 213-35. This phase of the project was carried out with Delphine Mauger, a French honors undergraduate in anthropology with support from the Institute for Research on Women at the U-M. Special thanks are due to Chantal Fevrier and Annie Roquier for their advice and support.