France cleared a symbolic obstacle this week when it announced a pilot program that would allow women, for the first time, to serve in the historically male world of nuclear ballistic missile-carrying submarines.
The announcment was made by French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on the same day he revealed 10 measures aimed at preventing sexual harassment in the country's armed forces.
The dismantling of the last men-only domain in the French military will start in 2015 with the training of three female candidates, one of whom is to be a doctor. The women are expected to be in service by 2017 among the 2,000 other submariners who already crew the French navy’s four ballistic missile subs.
“The feminization of our forces must be widespread,” Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, French magazine Le Point reported. “It’s a symbol, but it’s a symbol that indicates women participate wholly in our defense efforts.”
By allowing women on ballistic subs, France will be catching up to United States and the United Kingdom which have permitted mixed crews in recent years. After 110 years of men-only aboard its submarines, the US began training women in 2009 to serve under water.
The British Royal Navy announced in 2011 it would allow females to work on its Vanguard class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. Like France, just three spots are currently available and non-commissioned officers will only be allowed starting next year.
Women in navies around the world, France included, have been barred from serving on nuclear subs due to concerns over sex and close quarters during the lengthy missions.
Also, it was only recently that a new larger class of submarine in France made it possible for separate male and female quarters in the cramped space aboard the vessels. French authorities had often leaned as well on the question of women’s physical capacities, saying they were less adept at handling the higher levels of carbon dioxide during underwater missions.
Though the door is now open to women, the pool of candidates is expected to remain small. France’s naval academy has been only been accepting women since 1993 and to present only 23 have risen to command a vessel, Le Monde reported.
On Tuesday minister Le Drian presented his plan of action to tackle sexual harassment in the army which will include greater support for victims, the opening of a 24/7 help line for them to report attacks and automatic legal protection for victims.
Toilets and living quarters will also be separated to help avoid creating situations that encourage promiscuity and raise the risk of sexual attacks. Punishments for violence will also be hardened, under the new rules.