Why Segolene can't win

11th October 2006, Comments 0 comments

Most pundits base their predictions on the opinion polls. Expatica France editor Clair Whitmer uses a much more scientific method: she watches TV. And Wednesday night proves that Ségolène still has much too high a hill to climb.

I'm going to make a prediction: Ségolène Royal will lose the French presidential election in May 2007. Barring any significant mistakes on her part in the interim, she'll make it to the second round, but then she'll lose. Or rather she won't win.

The first French female president, according to France 2

What's the difference?

The difference is that France is not ready to elect a woman as Président de la République.

On what do I base this ringing pronouncement and serious charge nearly eight months ahead of the actual election? A 'comedy' show that airs Wednesday night on France 2, 'L'Etat de Grâce'.

Yes, alright, as political predictions go, it's a stretch. But maybe not that much of a stretch.

Let's look at the show: Grace Bellanger is the 41-year-old first female president of France, "an exceptional woman, a woman courageous and fragile, a woman born under the sign of grace," so says the publicity material.

And you have to believe it because the poor thing gets pregnant, with twins!, in her first month in office; the First Mate, her husband, meanwhile spends his time both getting drunk and bemoaning his demasculation in public.

This is a president both smart and articulate and, yet, so child-like she asks questions about her sex life of the maid. In last week's episode, she had to: deal with a leak from within the Elysée about her newly discovered pregnancy; confront her chauffeur who has fallen madly in love with her; chat with President Clinton (as in Hillary) on the phone; out-manoeuvre a (female) reporter out to get her in a press conference during which she admits, why, yes, she does consider resigning. And she finds time to go shopping for shoes.

*sidebar1*It's a comedy. It's full of clichés because clichés are often so funny. One fan on the France 2 discussion board for the show, who dubbed him/herself Segolene R, commented: "This has nothing to do with reality."

But, all joking aside, is that really true?

The French glass ceiling

The fact is that France is indeed way behind its European neighbours in terms of female political representation. The glass ceiling is everywhere, but it is noticeably lower in France.

Look at statistics we recently cited in a news analysis on this same topic ('Running France: Woman's Work?): France ranks 84 in a survey of women elected to national legislative office, here, namely the Assemblée Nationale and the Sénat, in a July 2006 survey by the Inter-Parlimantary Union.

That's just below Niger and just above Syria. (The US ranked 67, by the way, the UK 51, Canada 45, Australia 32, Ireland 77, and South Africa 14.)

Think legislative office is not related to executive office? Germany and Chile, both of which recently elected female heads of state, ranked 16 and 68 respectively.

Think old-fashioned machismo explains all? Well, then what about the fact that the other 'Latinate' nations of Europe, all rank significantly above France on the list (Spain 8, Italy 59, Portugal 43)?

Likewise, in terms of the pay gap, France also falls behind. The average pay gap in the private sector in Europe is 16 percent; in France it's officially 20 percent and some women's-advocate groups put that figure closer to 30 percent. This is despite generous maternity leaves and an excellent state-funded childcare system.

There has got to be a reason why France is so far behind in achieving not just theoretical but actual equality for women.

The mighty française

My theory, as someone who lives next to French women and is related to several examples and am sometimes measured up against them, is that France just makes it too darn hard to be a woman. They have a disproportionate number of balls to juggle.

My admiration is sincere: all hail the mighty française!

To succeed as a woman in any domain in France, including staying in the foyer, you've got to be:

  • as smart as the men in a society that defines intelligence as perfect erudition, a sparkling wit, and an actual diploma from a school you very nearly killed yourself to get into
  • well-dressed and perfectly groomed without ever appearing to work at it, which, as any woman knows, is the very highest ranking of 'high-maintenance' female
  • exercise perfect authority over your children, of which the government encourages you with tax breaks and cash payouts to produce at least four
  • be an excellent cook and master of the art du vivre
  • a skilled séductrice (which in French is not specifically a sexual term, let me remind you) who always attracts her flies with honey rather than vinegar so that l'homme de sa vie doesn't feel bad like President Grace's long-suffering husband. In other words, you've got to be like Grace, both courageous and fragile. Can't forget the fragile. 
  • oh, and God forbid you should ever gain a kilo. The actress cast as Grace Bellanger looks to weigh about 20.

*sidebar2*Now, of course, this list sounds familiar to successful woman the world over, but France sets the standards very high for everyone from the second they set foot in primary school. (French students, for example, run the highest risk of failing a grade of anywhere in the world, according to a recent OECD study.)

But French domestic life also sets, I would argue, higher standards, for example, for the quality and presentation of food but also for other chores, like the ironing, a constant in the life of any French woman. A poll I read last year in Femme Actuelle (France's most-read 'woman's magazine') reported that men have devoted the time liberated by the 35-hour work week to sports and associations. Women have devoted it to housework.

While doing all of the above, French woman have that reputation for chic to live up to. Plus, they must achieve all this often without what in the US women call a 'support network'.

The Australian author of the expat book 'Almost French' jokes that French women can never really be friends with each other because they are too busy assessing who has the bigger bottom. Well, I have French female friends and I don't think the relative size of my bottom is a factor in our relationship. (Or I certainly hope not.)

But it is true that French women don't 'vent' to each other; putting your weaknesses on display is not a ritual of French female friendship. And the importance of this may be that if women don't expect it of each other, they certainly they don't expect the French man to cut them any slack.

As everyone knows, all successful, high-profile women have to be better than their male counterparts. But the bar that demarcates 'success' is very high in France for everybody and, so far, anyway, almost impossibly high for women.

I admire French female stoicism, I really do. They do all of the above and they don't even complain about it. They think it's 'normal'. But I wonder if a bit more of a sticky-wheel strategy would 'normalise' some of the statistics cited above.

So what about Ségolène?

She really is the perfect example of what I'm talking about. Enarque. Mother of four. Looks good in a bikini at 53. And the favourite of her party without any help from the machine whatsoever. Her own partner, Socialist party head François Hollande, recently had her walk into a party event the same time as the other candidates so the fact that she garnered so much more applause would not embarrass everybody.

The First Babies. In a cabinet meeting?

In her home region of the Poitou-Charente, she is known as an authoritarian figure, a bit too 'royal' as some have commented. She's definitely got this French steel magnolia thing going, tough-as-nails yet still the eternal séductrice.

So, if she's so perfect, why will she lose?

My mother always told me: "You can have it all if you can do it all." Well, after three years in France, I believe that 'doing it all' here is even more work than it was in the US.

It seems to me the key to Ségolène's popularity so far is precisely her appearance of being the perfect French female. But the truth is that no one can do it all, especially on that level. Sooner or later, during the course of this campaign, the seams will show.

I believe she'll start losing as soon as that happens.

But I won't be sorry to be proven wrong.  I don't expect to be perfect.

October 2006

Copyright Expatica

Subject: French news, French presidential election, Ségolène Royal, gender equality, L'Etat de Grâce, Grace Bellanger, France 2

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