By Elena LYSAK
aryse Viseur is the President of the French organisation Femme Avenir. She is also known in the world of sports as an International referee in Canoe/Kayak. This extraordinary woman was awarded the highest French civilian distinction, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour). Subsequently, she was recognised for her service to France with the insignia of Chevalier de l’Ordre national du Mérite (Knight of the National Order of Merit). Notwithstanding, she doesn’t see herself exceptional. She doesn’t like to talk about success per se, but she believes courage opens every door.
I’m a darer, I am constantly pushing myself beyond my limits.
Madame Viseur, we got introduced to each other thanks to your activity in your organisation Femme Avenir. Yet, you have so many different roles in your life. Let’s take sports, you are one of the most well-known referees in canoeing and kayaking.
Yes, sport has always been an important part of my life since a very young age, however, I did not have any kind of trigger to fall in love with it. I was the only girl in the family. We lived in the rural area in the South West of France. I was receiving a very classical education but I was a noticeably talented athlete, so getting into sports was one of my dreams. Still, when I asked my parents for permission, their answer was: “No! A lady doesn’t show her legs!”
And yet, I kept playing sports. In 1975 I met a young man who invited me to try canoeing. We started dating. This man became my husband and the father of our son. We have been married since 1978.
Both of us managed to achieve a very high level: we’ve got qualified for the French Slalom Championship in mixed K2 canoeing.
After the birth of our son, my husband got transferred to Paris, and we had to take a break from our sport-related activities. Some time later, when we decided to get back to canoeing-kayaking, we realised that it was hard to find a good club in Paris. We went ahead and opened a club ourselves. The name of our first club was Lagny. When the new members started taking part in the competitions, there was a need for referees. I went ahead and got my diploma of a National referee. I became an International Judge-referee in 1991. Our club is relatively young, but we are proud to count an Olympic medal, to have national champions, and world champions among our members.
My husband is the President, and I am the co-founder of our club. I am also an International Judge and Referee, recognised for the worldwide championships, Olympic Qualifying Championships of 2015 as well as the Olympic Games in Rio of 2016. I am very pleased with this recognition. Furthermore, I am also a member of the Federal Council of the French Canoe/Kayak federation. And I became the French women’s vice-champion in 1998.
Did your parents finally support your interest in sports? Did they encourage you to be open-minded?
I received a very good education that was inspired by the most progressive ideas of the 1950s. However, even though I have always been open to new ideas myself, I didn’t really talk about my ideas to my parents, to be honest. I started expressing myself more once I got married in the 1970s.
My parents have always been very traditional in their views. They believed that having a family was the most important thing in life for a woman. But my grandmother from my mother’s side was an exceptional person. A very beautiful woman, intelligent and progressive. She was driving a car back in 1910. And yet, my mother turned out to be very traditional, I don’t really know why. She has always had these very strong opinions: “A woman must be like this, a man must be like that”.
I believe I was greatly influenced by my grandparents. They were an amazing couple, we called them “the Beauty and the Beast”. I spent a lot of time with them in my childhood and I think that my strong character comes from them.
What about your son? Does he share your views?
To some extent. Our son is 38 years old. He and his wife have become parents. They made us very happy with a birth of their two little boys, the twins who are 2 years old now. My son is an Entrepreneur, his wife is a Company Manager, they are living in Belgium. We are truly happy to babysit their kids from time to time.
Who was babysitting your son?
I was running a company when our son was born, so I was lucky to have my parents to mind our son.
When we moved to Paris in 1989 I stopped my professional activity and stayed at home, doing only my community work – Femme Avenir is one of them.
The community work allowed me to participate in elaborating a new family policy at the time of Alain Juppé. I was a housewife, but I still played a crucial role in the family, I was always taking part in various external activities.
During that time, I became the 1st woman president of the Parents organisation for more than 1100 families of a private boys’ school in Saint-Laurent-de-Lagny.
You impress me. Well, I remember your quote: ”I’m a real darer, I do everything to push myself beyond my limits”
Yes, but in fact, I don’t know what my real limits are. I define my limits by: “What is possible, what is not”. It helps to get an idea how to get a satisfying result.
Satisfying for whom?
For myself. And it is about being able to tell what I accept and what I do not. It is about knowing what I really want to do. Sometimes, it is about being able to say “No”.
Tell me, are you a perfectionist?
Yes, especially toward myself. Sometimes, I am demanding of others too. When I work in teams, I know what each person can bring and how to set the attainable common goals for all team members. Keeping your personality and working in a group is possible. I may appear rigorous but I believe that I have been given so much that I have to bring out my best to the others. It is absolutely essential.
Make the society grow
Fabulous! You’re always the best at everything you do.
No, it’s not fabulous, it’s just me. I’m an independent woman, I don’t like having feet and hands chained, only if I am free I can move forward, and have my own freedom of expression and action.
Of course, without denying my origins, my education, my culture, my values, my political views, or my religious engagement – just being myself and in harmony with others. I’m also “pugnacious”, that’s it.
I can imagine that being the President of Femme Avenir comes with a lot of challenges.
Yes, of course. I was elected the President in 2007. This year I will be celebrating my 10th anniversary. My first mandate was signed under the slogan
Women had to be encouraged to dare.
Our 2017 slogan is
We are a long-standing historical women’s movement, but we are modern too. Our organisation, the Educational and informational Centre Femme Avenir was created by General Charles de Gaulle back in 1965 to allow women to find their place in the civil society, economy, culture, politics. Our Organisation also comes up with the initiatives to change French laws into women’s favour. By empowering women, and giving them more opportunities, we are helping the society grow. Together with our male counterparts.
Make the society grow, is it a national level idea?
Yes, certainly. Besides, I have other important activities. Since we came to Paris, I joined the Institute of High Studies of National Defense (IHEDN) where I am a member of the Committee of the regional Association and also the President of the Committee of Youth Studies. After the IHEDN, I joined the “Reserve Citoyenne” as the squadron leader in the gendarmerie.
I am a member of the working group with which we meet every month to work on the following subjects: how to get more value to the “gendarmerie” concept. We also organise seminars on security for enterprises.
It is important because to me security is the guarantee of the nation. The security allows us to be free and to make the society grow. It is the respect of the civil rules. But it does not mean we need to have a policeman to point out to someone: “Madame, your child throws a paper onto the pavement, and there is a bin right next to you”. This is just common sense. We need to keep our mind clear to have our streets clean.
How did you join Femme Avenir?
It is very simple. My husband got transferred to Paris, and one day he told me: “I know an organisation that may be perfect for you!“
And I still remember myself saying: “… a women’s organisation? Damn!”, as I’ve always had more contacts with men than with women. But when in 1989 I came to Femme Avenir, I met some truly extraordinary women. They were pioneers in what they were doing. These women wanted to have France to be a place for liberated women. So I joined Femme Avenir and I am proud to be among women of different origins but sharing the same values.
Yes, I am. And I am also the Chevalier de l’Ordre national du Mérite (Knight of the National Order of Merit).
These are the two most important French national distinctions, represented by the Blue and Red ribbons, I am wearing both of them on my jacket.
Christian Jacob, the Public sector minister, bestowed the Blue one on me, following the President’s decree, in 2005. I was honoured with the Red one in 2009. The Minister of Defence, Michèle Alliot-Marie, conferred it on me following the President’s decree.
It was an unforgettable ceremony. I said to myself: “The title is given to me, but there are so many people working with me, I would like to share this honour with them”. I organised a breakfast for 110 people in the Senate. A few of them knew that the Minister would come. When she arrived, I announced that I wanted to thank them all for their valuable contribution to this success.
I can imagine that your family and your husband are very proud of you?
Yes, I believe so, but I’m very proud of them too.
I am lucky to have such a wonderful husband.
Is it important for a woman to have a connection between her family and her professional activities?
Oh yes. That’s why we are working at Femme Avenir since the beginning to create a true conciliation between the private and the professional women’s lives. And we make propositions to French laws to turn them to women’s favour.
Is it difficult to juggle?
I would say extremely difficult. Because even today, many women who would like to do something, to create something beyond their family circle, impose limits upon themselves because of their family duties towards their relatives. My husband has always supported my professional activities and participated in daily chores but you may also need to be lucky to have such a partner.
Are you as socially active as your husband?
Yes, I am.
We have an important common goal together – it is our engagement towards the society, towards the nation and young people. It gives us our energy. Everybody can do it, but if we have an opportunity to help others, why wouldn’t we use it? What sense does it make to live just for oneself?
So, the opportunities to act, are they the same for men and for women?
They are the same, but the ways to use them may be different.
In my opinion, a woman should be a woman, she should be natural, but having in mind that the society has its own codes created by men. So she should be able to adapt herself to these codes remaining herself at the same time.
The French laws guarantee the basic rights for women, but it is also up to women to make use of them. There are some female examples who dare, who inspire some of us, who actually make things happen. For me, such examples are Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher, Michèle Alliot-Marie, Christine Lagarde. They are women, but they are defined by their actions, they are perceived as women who act, the so to say “power women”.
My success is sharing
What is the definition of success for you?
It’s a very philosophical question …
Are you a successful woman?
No, I’m not. But if we consider using this word, if we look into it, I think it is rather a marketing definition with a media effect.
Success depicted in the modern society is often vulgar, I am sorry to say this. There are certain images shown on our Media, but the real success, where does it come from? It’s not that easy.
Your life, your exceptional career, could they be an example of the real success for other women?
Success is definitely not my word! I prefer:
she is courageous.
But the word that describes me the most: I’m pugnacious. We are fighting, I’m trying to go up to the end.
And the success in this…
My success is to share things with my family.
And now even with my grandchildren – it’s stimulating for me. I will tell you one thing: when they were born in 2014, the first idea that came to my mind was: “How old will you be when they turn 20? “ And then I told to myself: “Wow, look at you, you must stay in a good shape!” This is how I see success.
Do you ever lack time or energy for anything?
No. It has a very simple explanation:
When I decide to do something, I do it.
And when I have new projects, I prioritise them by what is possible, and what is not possible for me.
Do you have any fun activities in your busy schedule?
Every day is fun. I am fond of doing so many things: cooking, reading, embroidering. I would do them more, but I do not allocate much time to them, as they are not my priorities. My 3 most important priorities now are
- Femme Avenir, which is an international organisation with its influence and lobbying.
- I stay active in sports. This is a contribution to my life balance.
- And the last one is IHEDN.
How do you organise your time?
I just get to work every day. I get up at 6 – 6.30am, and have my traditional breakfast, a big cup of coffee, half baguette with Charentes butter and homemade jam – this is the best start of my day.
Have you ever thought of writing a book?
I have already contributed to writing a book in the 1990s. This book’s title is “Julie’s Parents: or common sense education” published in Maison de la Pedagogie. I wrote a chapter on values in every stage of Julie’s life.
What about your son, what advice did you give him?
We educated our son to be open-minded enough, to have the keys to be free to choose and to act when he grows up. These are my pieces of advice.
Maryse, what is your advice for women who want to be as active as you are?
I would say to them:
But to dare, you need to know yourself well. It means being able to live with your strengths and your weaknesses, to understand what we want, what we can do and why.
Tell me, what is your secret?
I am lucky to be healthy, I don’t often go to see the doctors. I am in good spirits. Sometimes I ask myself: “What if you were blind?” And then I realise that I would have had a solution. I would have learnt the Braille to be able to continue reading. I would have been able to communicate this way, and I would have adopted a special dog.
You seem to be happy with your life.
Yes, I always see the bright side. And I bring a positive attitude to my ideas. Tomorrow is a new day, it is a new beginning. Thank God, my body is healthy and my mind is clear.
Every day I say:
I dare! I’m open to this brand new day.
In fact, I don’t ask myself how my actions could change the world,
I am just doing my best every day to have a better future.
And finally, we will be judged by what we do. Voila.
Photos: Courtesy of Anastasia Rufin