Louis Desanges, the president of the 126-year-old Automobile Club de France, found himself in a bit of a bind in 2019.
Carlos Ghosn had resigned as CEO of Renault following his arrest in Tokyo, and later that year the car company had named Clotilde Delbos as interim CEO. Desanges’s club has traditionally extended honorary memberships to the heads of France’s main auto companies, but this time he could not: L’Auto, as it is known, does not accept women members.
“We might have been able to give her a card granting the same rights as a member’s wife,” Desanges said in an interview. “Even that would have been a first.”
Luckily for him and his institution — the oldest of its kind in the world — Delbos’s reign was short-lived, and she was replaced by Italian-born Luca de Meo, who will be receiving his membership.
While far from the only all-male club in the world, L’Auto is among the few created around an industry whose top echelons are increasingly not exclusive to men.
Delbos — who declined to comment — is the deputy CEO of Renault. At rival Stellantis, women head the Peugeot, DS and Chrysler brands as well as the supply chain and car-sharing operations. Tire-maker Michelin has four women on its 11-strong executive committee. In the U.S., Mary Barra heads General Motors.
“Having a club like this, stuck in the 19th century and closed off to women detracts from all the efforts made by the industry to open up to women,” said Elisabeth Young, who has worked in the sector for three decades and is co-founder and president of Women and Vehicles in Europe, or Wave, an association created in 2008 to draw more women into the fold. “It’s a very damaging symbol that projects the image of a car industry that is the preserve of men.”
That does little to shake Desanges’s resolve to keep women out of his club’s membership rolls. No woman has been able to join because the process needs the backing of two existing members, and that will not be forthcoming, he said.
“This will not change as long as I’m president,” the 74-year-old said. “I feel like three quarters of our roughly 2,000 members do not want this to change, and I am too democratic to impose something they do not want. We have other opportunities to meet women in Paris.”
Created in 1895, around the time motorized vehicles were invented, L’Auto is housed in an opulent mansion in central Paris, overlooking the Place de la Concorde and rubbing shoulders with the grand Hotel de Crillon.
Within its rarefied confines, Desanges is charged with upholding its traditions of savoir faire, discretion and privileged membership. The gilded institution counts Renault Chairman Jean-Dominique Senard, Carlos Tavares, head of Stellantis, and Valeo CEO Jacques Aschenbroich among members.
“For the industry, the ACF is more than just a social club,” said Young. “It hosts many automobile events, meetings and conferences. It’s a powerful tool in an incredibly beautiful setting. Why exclude women from membership?”
Barring women is not written in L’Auto’s statutes. Instead, tradition dictates that none are ever proposed for membership, said Desanges. Wives can come as guests, borrow library books, attend some events and have lunch with friends, but they are blocked from designated areas, including the celebrated underground swimming pool.
L’Auto’s aristocratic creators modeled it on British gentlemen’s clubs, and it is not the only one in Paris still excluding women. The French capital’s most exclusive clubs also include the Jockey Club de Paris, the Nouveau Cercle de l’Union, the Cercle de l’Union Interalliee and the Travellers Club. Only the Union Interallie has broken with tradition to allow women members.
The Royal Automobile Club in London was created by motoring enthusiasts a year after l’Auto and has a reciprocal arrangement with the Paris club. But unlike its French counterpart, it began signing up women members in 1999.
In Zurich, the 685-year-old Zunft zur Meisen guild is considering whether to admit women, and in New York, exclusive associations like the Union League Club started admitting women around the time a 1988 Supreme Court ruling did away with sex discrimination in such places.
A small minority of members would like L’Auto’s restrictive gender policy to change, one of them said, asking not to be named. The most vocal opponents tend to be among the youngest, giving the impression of wanting to preserve a sort of U.S.-college-style fraternity, he said.
While L’Auto is not France’s car lobby and has no official role, the club champions the motoring world and its history is rooted in the development of the sector in the country, having organized auto shows and races. It ran the first French Grand Prix that put the country on the map for motor racing. Many members of the club are still affiliated with the industry, although they no longer make up the majority.
“We provide a moral authority” and informally weigh in on industry issues, Desanges said during the interview in his ornate office, which offers a commanding view beyond the Seine river of France’s National Assembly. That’s where lawmakers have in recent years taken aim at road speed, vehicle emissions and air pollution, leading Desanges to complain about an atmosphere of “automobile bashing.”
He is fervently against Europe’s relatively rapid and subsidy-fueled shift to electric vehicles, arguing the pace is too fast for consumers and will leave the industry at a competitive disadvantage against China down the road. Desanges is also pushing for vintage cars to be exempt from planned tough emissions rules in large French cities. This would allow L’Auto’s aficionados to drive to their regular Thursday meetings.
Wave’s Young bristles as what she sees as retrograde views pushed by the club. “The automobile industry is at a crossroads as it shifts to electric vehicles, new forms of mobility and car sharing and it needs all talents to progress, and half of all the talent out there is feminine,” she said.
Some industry insiders dismiss L’Auto as irrelevant, an outdated club for old-timers from another era that is out of step with reality. Desanges rejects this characterization, pointing out that the average age of members is just below 55. In recent years the club has also started giving annual prizes to promising auto-tech startups.
At the French car lobby’s conference in October, where Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and CEOs of Renault and Michelin spoke, Desanges and auto-making clan scion Thierry Peugeot — both sporting the club’s blue ties with red stripes — also took to the stage to reward the year’s laureates.
L’Auto is “a traditional place rather than a place for old people,” said Desanges. “It’s more modern that it might appear.”
Some women would beg to differ.