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Women who put

Provence, the Alps and the Côte d’Azur on the map

These visionary, skilled women have marked history with their talent and commitment. Their common denominator is their attachment to the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. For International Women’s Day, on March 8th, let us take a little look at the history of their careers.

Alexandra David-Néel

From the Himalayas to Digne-les-Bains

Alexandra David-Néel was a tireless explorer and the first Western woman to enter Lhassa, the forbidden capital city of Tibet. That was in 1924. At the time, the achievement caused a sensation and revealed her to the general public. But Alexandra David Néel had many other strings to her bow: opera singer in her youth, specialist in oriental culture, she was also a feminist activist, journalist and author. In 1946, after decades of adventures, she returned to France and her home in Digne-les-Bains where Provence and the Alps meet. The Pays Dignois was her refuge, her “Himalayas for Lilliputians”, as she nicknamed it. Alexandra David-Néel’s former house now houses a museum which bears witness to the rich life she led.

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Niki de Saint Phalle

A flagship artist in the Nice MAMAC

A visual artist and painter, Niki de Saint Phalle left a strong imprint on the art of the second half of the 20th century. A member of the nouveaux réalistes, an artistic movement derived from American Pop art which deflects the codes of the consumer society to denounce its absurdity, Niki de Saint Phalle is particularly well-known for her “Nanas”, a series of female sculptures with generous curves. The fight against racial and sexual discrimination is also at the heart of her work. And this is actually the meaning of her “Nana noire”, exhibited in the Nice MAMAC, to which the artist made an exceptional donation in 2002: “the Nana noire is the symbol of a utopia, a world where Blacks and Whites are equal… just like men and women”.

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Nina Simone

Her last years in Carry-le-Rouet

A figure of American jazz and blues and star of the stage, Nina Simone was also famous for her fight for African-American civil rights, from the mid-sixties. She was disgusted by racial inequality and the violence regularly aimed at African-Americans. She made it one of the key themes of her songs –  some were censored. As her career declined, Nina Simone came to live in France in 1992, first in Paris and then in the South in Bouc-Bel-Air and later Carry-le-Rouet, on the Côte Bleue. She lived there until her death in 2003.

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Colette

A woman writer on the Côte d’Azur

The second woman to be elected to the Académie Goncourt in 1945, Colette raised non-conformity to the level of a lifestyle. Indifferent to scandal, she appeared scantily dressed in the music-hall and openly advertised her bisexuality. Attracted by the charms of the Côte d’Azur, the author of “Le Blé en herbe” came to stay there regularly. First in Sainte-Maxime and then in her villa in Saint-Tropez, “la Treille-Muscate”. That is where Colette wrote “La naissance du jour”, on the subject of the nostalgia of days gone by.

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Marie-Laure de Noailles

A patron of the arts in Hyères

Marie-Laure de Noailles was a patron of the arts, commissioner and collector, and, with her  husband, Charles de Noailles, formed one of the most influential couples in the French art world in the first half of the 20th century. In the early 1920s, Marie-Laure and Charles de Noailles built the Villa Noailles in Hyères, the symbol of avant-garde architecture of the interwar period. Unceasingly rethought and improved, the Villa Noailles, designed by the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, became, thanks to the memorable receptions organised by Marie-Laure de Noailles, one the pivotal points of avant-garde art that she never stopped supporting and encouraging.

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Simone de Beauvoir

Marseille or freedom

The year was 1931. Simone de Beauvoir, a young teacher of philosophy left Paris for Marseille where she had just been posted. As she was to tell the story later in her Memoirs, she was charmed by the philosophy shimmering colours and vivacity of the Mediterranean city, a symbol of emancipation and freedom. “I had left my suitcase in the luggage deposit and I just stood stock still at the top of the great staircase. ‘Marseille’, I said to myself. Under the clear blue sky, the sun-kissed red tiles, shadowy nooks and the plane trees wearing their autumn colours; in the distance the hills and the deep blue sea; a murmur rose from the city with a smell of burnt herbs and people going to and fro in the depth of the dark streets. Marseille. And there I was, all alone, empty-handed, separated from my past and everything I loved, and I looked at the great unknown city where I was going to fashion my life from day to day without any help.” Simone de Beauvoir, La Force de l’âge (Gallimard).

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Simone Veil

Birth and childhood in Nice

Talking of her home town, Nice,  Simone Veil, who died in 2017, said: “I feel very much a Niçoise. I had a very happy childhood there. The older I get, the more the past is present for me”. She spent the first 16 years of her life in Nice before her world turned upside down and she was deported to Auschwitz. After the war, she became a magistrate, and then Health Minister in 1974. At the Assemblée Nationale, which was highly dominated by men and hostile to women, she pushed forward the law legalising abortion. She also had a great influence on the law of 2000 on equality.

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