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Barbed words

France [GENDER EQUALITY]

When Interpol recently appointed its first female president, Mireille Ballestrazzi, there was widespread delight that a high-profile international body had again placed a French woman at the helm. Christine Lagarde at the IMF is another obvious role model for female graduates at les grandes écoles.

In French politics, too, there appear to have been great leaps forward. True to his campaign promise, President François Hollande’s cabinet has a perfect gender balance, with 17 out of 34 ministerial posts filled by women.

But not everyone is celebrating. A group of female activists called La Barbe (“the beard”, but also slang for “that’s enough!”) say, “There is an element of window dressing. With the exception of the Justice Ministry, the weightier portfolios remain in the hands of men.”

In the corporate world, there is no such pretence at equality: not one cac 40 company has a female ceo. La Barbe may turn up en masse at shareholders’ meetings wearing stick-on facial hair, but their commitment to accelerating change is serious. “We denounce the monopoly of power, prestige, money and privilege in the hands of a couple of thousand men,” states their manifesto.

Politicians have taken note: it will be a legal requirement that women occupy 40 per cent of corporate boardroom seats by 2017.

Three influential French women

1. Mireille Ballestrazzi
The first female president of Interpol. As French police number two, the 58-year-old made her name with a crack-down on crime in Corsica.

2. Simone Veil
The Auschwitz survivor was Health Minister in the 1970s, successfully battling to legalise abortion and increase access to oral contraception.

3. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem
The 35-year-old Moroccan-born Minister for Women’s Rights, eloquent and highly visible as a government spokesperson, is a rising star.

Last resorts

Valais [LOCALISM]

Switzerland’s stable economy and scenic landscape are popular with buyers of second homes, with the Alpine nation racking up half a million vacation properties. Last March, however, voters passed a law to limit holiday homes in towns to no more than 20 per cent of the housing stock, a measure aimed squarely at hundreds of mountain resorts where chalets are shuttered for much of the year while locals struggle for affordable living space. This month the Swiss again go to the polls, to vote on a zoning law that would reduce the area available for building in the cantons. Unsurprisingly, leading the “No” campaign is Valais, a key tourist region that boasts the country’s biggest concentration of vacation homes.

Capital cuisine

Helsinki [FOOD]

After a successful year as the World Design Capital, Helsinki continues to boost its international brand. This time the city’s focus is on food, with a strategy to strengthen its culinary profile and become a “top quality European culinary city”: a tough goal given the competition from gastronomic destinations such as Florence and San Sebastián.

For Finns, though, culinary culture means involving everyone. The strategy will increase organic food at nurseries and set up food commissions for school children to have a say in their own lunches; renovate and develop the city’s old foodhalls; and grant building permission for unusual initiatives such as container cafés.

Continental shift

Germany

Finding a job, for the youth of Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy, means learning German. The Bundesagentur für Arbeit says hundreds of thousands of southern Europeans head to Germany for work every year.

Q&A - Iñaki Azkuna

Mayor of Bilbao, Spain

After 14 years in office, Iñaki Azkuna has just been named the world’s best mayor. Monocle joined him at his favourite local restaurant to discuss his region.

Why is there less corruption in the Basque country than in other parts of Spain?
The secretaries of Spanish kings were traditionally from the Basque region because they were seen as honest, trustworthy and good economic managers. These characteristics live on today and, overall, we are an honest people.

Rumblings of independence moves for the Basque country continue. Is it inevitable?
Right now, our priorities must be reducing unemployment, creating wealth and lifting the country out of its predicament. These are the issues, not independence.

Is austerity the only answer to Spain’s woes?
No. I think, in the end, Spain will have to request a bailout; softer than elsewhere and focused on investment. Merkel-styled austerity is fine for a month, but it does nothing for wealth creation.

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