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Poinso-Chapuis, Germaine

Marseille 06.03.1901 - Marseille 20.02.1981

First woman in France to be appointed a full minister, Germaine Marie Joséphine Chapuis was born in Marseille on 6 March 1901. Her parents were merchants from the rural area of Ardèche with relatives in the army and the judiciary. She began her studies at a private school and continued under the supervision of her elder sister, Eugénie, to whom she was to remain very attached. A monk and friend of the family taught her Latin. After obtaining her baccalauréat at the age of 17, she studied Law first in Marseilles and later in Aix-en-Provence with considerable success. She became a member of the Bar in Marseilles where she practised for twenty years and was well-known for her exceptional eloquence and efficacy.

As a Catholic and active feminist, she participated in the creation of the first women's unions and helped set up civil rights classes for women. As an ardent suffragist, she joined the Parti Démocrate Populaire (Democratic Popular Party) in 1924 and became a member of its national committee. Meanwhile, together with Mr Vidal-Naquet, she became a defence lawyer for children on trial and helped found the Committee for the Protection of Children. In 1936, she married Henri Poinso, a lawyer, and they had two sons born in 1938 and 1945.

During the Occupation, Germaine Poinso-Chapuis provided shelter and saved the lives of many Jews. She also defended communists, Trotskyites and resistance members in the courts and her chambers became a meeting place for the Resistance. Immediately after the Liberation, she was appointed Vice-Chairman of the Municipal Delegation of Marseilles by Gaston Defferre. Her energy and efficiency in carrying out this role led to her entry into politics. She joined the Mouvement Républicain Populaire (Popular Republican Movement) and soon became one of its leaders. Elected to two constituent assemblies, she became a member of the Legislative Assembly in 1946 and was re-elected in 1951. She was appointed Deputy Speaker of the Assembly several times and chaired various Parliamentary Commissions (Family, Justice, Legislation, Health, Economy).

Robert Schuman, President of the Council (Prime Minister), appointed her Minister for Public Health and Population in November 1947, a post she held until July 1948. Her parliamentary work was particularly productive as she introduced a large number of important laws: measures against alcoholism and prostitution; promotion of women and the protection of families, reforms of hospitals and public social assistance, training for social workers, status of nationalized enterprises, controls on prices and price fixing; and economic development in general (e.g. the Serre-Ponçon Dam).

She lost her seat in the 1956 general elections and abandoned politics in 1959 when she gave up her position on the municipal council. She remained a member of various national and international institutions (Hygiene Council, Paedopsychiatric Council, Social Service Council, UNICEF, High Committee on Alcoholism). She maintained her influence in national affairs and was often asked to undertake overseas missions. After 1959, she concentrated her efforts on protection of the handicapped (her eldest son suffered from a number of serious handicaps). Working first with Regional Associations for the Protection of Children (ARSEA, 1943), which were later merged into the National Union of Regional Associations (UNAR 1949), she helped found the National Centre and Regional Centres for Handicapped Childhood and Adolescents (CREAI). The Provence chapter of CREAI inspired a number of other centres, such as the St Paul Centre, which placed Marseilles at the forefront of research on epilepsy.

Germaine Poinso-Chapuis remained active until the end of her life. She was awarded the Resistance Medal and appointed Officer of the Légion d'honneur, Grand Officer of the Order of National Merit, and Commander of the Order of Public Health. A Marseilles Lycée bears her name.

Yvonne Knibiehler

Refs.: Germaine Poinso-Chapuis, published by CREAI (undated); Actes du colloque Germaine Poinso-Chapuis témoin de son temps, Association Les Femmes et la Ville, 1998.