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Ruth Fox, Director, Parliament & Government Programme at the Hansard Society
Nicholas Sarkozy promised a parity government but never delivered it. In contrast, newly elected French President, Francois Hollande, has fulfilled his election promise and appointed 17 women to his 34-member government. In addition to this historic achievement, he has also appointed a Women’s Ministry for the first time since 1986.
There has been some criticism that the portfolios allocated to the women are less powerful and influential than those of the men and certainly crucial posts – finance, foreign affairs, defence, interior, education, labour, reindustrialisation, agriculture – remain in the hands of men. It’s the ministries traditionally seen as more ‘social’ and ‘feminine’ – health and social affairs, culture, housing, sport and youth – that have been allocated to the women.
Interestingly, Hollande achieved parity without having to find a place for his former partner and 2007 presidential candidate, Segolene Royal (though she is now widely tipped to become President of the Assembly) and the Socialist Party leader and Mayor of Lyon, Martine Aubry. The women who have been appointed are, in the main, less prominent political figures, who lack a personal powerbase of their own and may therefore be more politically vulnerable in the future, heavily dependent on the President’s patronage. But we shouldn’t be too churlish about it: it’s a better outcome than has ever been managed in a British Cabinet.
Who are the names to watch? Well, the highest-ranking female member of the government is Christiane Taubira at the justice department; she’s been an MP for nearly thirty years and was the first black candidate to run for the presidency in 2002. The Green Party leader, Cecile Duflot, has also entered the government as housing minister. A considerable number of the new female ministers are under 40, suggesting strength in depth for the future. Indeed, it’s the youngest woman, 34-year old Najat Vallaud-Beklacem, who is likely to become the face of the administration as she combines the role of official government spokesperson with her women’s rights portfolio.
The French political system allows the President to appoint ministers from outside the Parliament, making it easier to achieve parity as the recruitment net can be cast across a wider talent pool. But it’s anticipated that elections to the National Assembly (on 10 and 17 June) will also see a significant increase in the number of women MPs. At present only 18.5% of MPs are women (lower than the UK’s 22%!) but France has introduced quotas that require parties to run an equal number of male and female candidates. We’ll see next month what impact this has across the country.
David Cameron has only committed to appointing women to a third of ministerial posts by the next election. But Hollande’s example raises the bar: if parties look hard enough, there are plenty of good women out there able to serve as candidates, MPs and ministers. The question is, are they willing to do more than just pay lip service to equality of representation?
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