Running France: Woman's Work?

15th September 2006, Comments 0 comments

France is firmly in the grip of what has been dubbed 'Ségomania'. But Jeremy Josephs asks: does that mean a country well behind its neighbours in terms of female political representation is ready to elect its first female president?

 

If a week is long time in politics, then the nine months remaining until the first round of voting in France's next Presidential elections must surely rank as an eternity.  

What is undeniable, however, is that France is firmly in the grip of an acute bout of what has been dubbed Ségomania, as Ségolène Royal surges ahead in the polls to become the favourite to win the keys to the Elysée Palace.    

Are the French ready for a real-life Marianne, the emblem of radical change and the symbol of modern France itself? And if so, is she named Ségolène Royal?

Of course Ségo (who has to wait until November before being nominated as the Socialist Party's official candidate) will then have to see off her political rival, the redoubtable Sarko.

So the biggest question of all remains whether or not, when opinion poll push comes to polling booth shove, France is ready not just for its first female President – but a Royal one to boot. 

Country, Rank

Lower or single House

Upper House or Senate

Election

Seats

Women

% W

Election

Seats

Women

% W

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sweden, 2

09-02

349

158

45.3

---

---

---

---

Netherlands, 7

01-03

150

55

36.7

06-03

75

22

29.3

Belgium, 11

05-03

150

52

34.7

05-03

71

27

38.0

Germany, 16

09-05

614

195

31.8

N.A.

69

13

18.8

UK, 51

05-05

646

127

19.7

N.A.

721

126

17.5

Italy, 59

04-06

630

109

17.3

0-06

322

44

13.7

France, 84

06-02

574

70

12.2

09-04

331

56

16.9

Syrian Arab R., 85

03-03

250

30

12.0

---

---

---

---

A comparative ranking of elected female representatives in 189 countries.
Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union based on data supplied 31 July 2006


 French politics, it has to be said, has long been a distinctly macho affair.   

French women, after all, only got the vote in the mid 1940s, considerably later than their European counterparts. 

French females-in-chief

In 1945 women represented just five percent of National Assembly deputés. Fast forward six decades to 2006 and that figure has not exactly shot through the roof – crawling up to a miserable 12 percent, about the same as Syria.

France remains a country, strange though it may seem, where political parties prefer to pay fines rather than adhere to legal quotas for women candidates. The result is an appalling record of female political representation, the only EU country that fares worse being Greece in this regard.  

Which immediately prompts one to come up with a convincing explanation of the remarkable Ségo effect, which has knocked all conventional political norms for a six.    

Why is it that the French political times are a-changin'?

The superficial yet rather compelling answer is that an extremely disillusioned French electorate seems to be saying loud and clear 'a plague on both of your (male) houses' – the message being that only a clear break with the failed policies of the past can lead to what is now being touted as a Ségolian programme of national rejuvenation.

It's not entirely dissimilar to the launching of a new soap powder; the French public are clearly disillusioned with the Persils and Dazs that have long been on offer, the Chiracs and Jospins of this world even apart from their apparent inability to deliver on key issues of economic and social reform. Favouring a female may seem to many French voters as the most profound possible rejection of the past.

Sex sells Socialists

Of course it has hardly hampered the Royal pathway to power that Ségolène has been described as the world's most sexy Socialist.

The attractive 53-year-old and mother of four's taste in clothes and flawless skin are a source endless comment in the press. Her blend of intelligence and restrained seduction are precisely what every French woman apparently aspires to — flirtatious, fashionable and feminine — and yet also free: free to voice her opinions even if they upset her male colleagues, free to remain unmarried, and, hopefully, free to pose a Socialist reponse to Sarkozy's Rupture rhetoric.

Of course her critics charge, with some justification, that she is rather long on image but distinctly short on specifics, particularly when it comes to economic and foreign policies, a political lightweight, they will tell you, incapable of running la République.  

But in keeping with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair (love them or loathe them, undeniably two of the most successful politicians of modern times) she has gone out of her way to attempt to cross the classical political divide between right and left.

As a working mother herself she has struck a chord with the public on issues as diverse as television violence, pornography, paedophilia and teen pregnancies – subjects in respect of which even the great Sarko has considerably less street-cred when it comes to getting his own message home. 

The macho need not apply    

*sidebar1*Is this all because of Ségolène's gender? Certainly not – but sneering remarks made by members of the mostly male Socialist old guard about her gender have only served to ensure that the Royal rollercoaster continues to gather momentum.  "Who will look after the children?" sniped former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius. "The presidential race is not a beauty contest," echoed Jack Lang, in remarks that can only be said to have backfired.

It goes without saying that the presidential contender is anxious to cite the example of the recently elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel, making the fair point that perceptions of women are changing not just in France but at a European level too.  

"We have seen in Germany the rejection of the deep-seated idea that there is some incompatibility between being a woman and being in charge," said Royal in a rare direct reference to her gender.

Up against centuries of ingrained sexism, it remains to be seen if France will embrace this one-woman revolutionary force in French politics. Its one thing to appear on the front pages of glossy magazine —  à la Diana — but quite another to see off a shrewd and seasoned political operator such as Nicolas Sarkozy, who sensibly has admitted that his rival for the Presidency was a formidable opponent indeed.    

Some commentators have pointed out that if elected she will in all likelihood be more Maggie (Margaret Thatcher, la dame de fer) than Marianne, in which case the French will certainly not know what has hit them once she sits down and sets to work.

Perhaps this is why she has been a little hesitant in spelling out the details of her agenda. 
_________________________________

Trained as a barrister, Jeremy Josephs worked for some years as political assistant to David Steel, the former leader of the Liberal Party in the U.K., before setting off for France to pursue a career in writing.  He is the author of several books, including 'Swastika over Paris' and 'A Chateau in the Dordogne'. He lives with his wife and daughter just outside Montpellier where he also teaches at the Faculty of Science.

September 2006

Copyright Expatica

Subject: Living in France, French presidential election, Ségolène Royal, Edith Cresson, Marianne and France

 

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