For a country where a husband's infidelity is almost tacitly agreed in a marriage contract, it is surprising that machismo has very little place in the French film business. Women have been running companies, working as producers, editors, screenwriters and directors for years in what appears to be one of the few places where the glass ceiling has been seriously cracked.

While they certainly do not dominate the profession, there are many women working behind the camera and at the highest levels of the film industry. About 20% of the membership of France's writers-directors-producers association ARP is female while export body Unifrance had, until recently, producer Margaret Menegoz at its helm. Meanwhile Veronique Cayla - formerly the administrative director of the Cannes film festival - has been president of state film body CNC since the summer of 2005, having replaced Catherine Colonna.

Hengameh Panahi's Celluloid Dreams is one of the most successful international sales companies in the world while Haut et Court partners Carole Scotta and Caroline Benjo produced Palme d'Or winner and Oscar nominee The Class (Entre Les Murs). That film was sold by Memento Films International, co-founded by Emilie Georges.

Adeline Fontan Tessaur, co-founder of international sales company Elle Driver, says that for women working on the business side of the industry, "the challenge remains being able to navigate between the stereotype of the reassuring woman and that of the woman who knows how to defend her ideas tooth and nail - an image men in this business appreciate but sometimes have difficulty dealing with".

Box-office successes

As of February 13, the top two French films at the local box office for 2009 were directed by women - Pascale Pouzadoux (Changing Sides) and Lisa Azuelos (LOL: Laughing Out Loud). Moreover, Maiwenn Le Besco's The Actress' Ball is one of the top 10 films of the year to date.

In 2008 Isabelle Mergault's A Widow At Last (Enfin Veuve) was the fifth most successful French film of the year, while her debut 2006 sleeper You Are So Beautiful (Je Vous Trouve Tres Beau) was the eighth biggest hit of the year in France.

"It took a long time but starting with people like (director) Agnes Varda, the field opened up," says director Catherine Breillat. She points to the success of Coline Serreau's 1985 smash Three Men And A Cradle (3 Hommes Et Un Couffin) which proved a woman could make a commercial film. Three Men And A Cradle went on to sell more than 10 million tickets, making it the number one film in France that year.

"From the time people understood that women could make films for a big audience, there was no longer any difference between male and female directors," Breillat suggests. Now, she believes, it is simply a matter of digging in one's heels - be they stilettos or brogues. "Young French women have always been very tenacious but even for a man to do a first film, they have to hang in and fight. No-one gets anything immediately."

Writer-director Daniele Thompson - who was nominated for a Cesar award for best writing for Avenue Montaigne (Fauteuils D'Orchestre) believes the abundance of female directors "holds with the nature of French cinema, which is more intimate. French film is more about feminine sensibility than the spectacle of cinema that traditionally attracts men, like movies about war or violence. A director is like an army general for a few months. Here films are smaller and more easily approached."

Further, the hours are "more humane" she says, recalling the surprise with which the late Sydney Pollack greeted her shoot for Avenue Montaigne in 2005. "He was fascinated by the atmosphere - that we don't shut down entire streets for shooting, that there is good wine in the cafeteria at lunch and that the schedules are more supple."

Working mothers

As for the eternal debate of the working mother, it is true France has a very good daycare system but Thompson contends it is more a matter of a family organising itself. "You can't do a film and take care of the kids, the laundry, the dishes. You can do it when you're writing but not shooting. But we do have the weekends."

Thompson believes getting into the film business is tough, whoever you are: "Opening the first door is hard but that is the same for men and women. Cinema is a dream job, and so there are a lot of competitors but not many who pass through those doors. It's an honour for France that female directors have arrived at a state of equality with men."

However, no French woman has ever won the Palme d'Or, with New Zealand's Jane Campion still the only woman to win the prize, for The Piano back in 1993.