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Dr. Rainbow Murray, Reader in Politics at Queen Mary, University of London
On 17 June, France elected a record number of women to its parliament. This was one of several gains for women in French politics since the election of François Hollande as president on 6 May. France has now overtaken the UK for women’s representation, even if its goal of gender parity – inscribed in its constitution since 1999 – still remains somewhat elusive.
Unlike his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande honoured his promise of a parity government, with all posts other than prime minister being divided evenly between men and women. Among these posts was a cabinet minister for women’s rights. This is the first time France has had a full cabinet portfolio dedicated to women since 1986. In the UK, women’s ministers have had to combine the portfolio with another position to attain cabinet status. However, despite these promising gains, inequality persisted within the government. A man was chosen as prime minister despite the opportunity to appoint the popular female party leader, Martine Aubry, who was left empty-handed. And women were placed predominantly in “feminine” and less visible portfolios, with the most prestigious roles going almost exclusively to men. In this respect, the new government was actually a step backward from Sarkozy’s first government, which featured several women in prominent and powerful roles.
In parliament, like many other countries, France has a partisan divide in terms of women’s representation, with parties of the left being much better at promoting women. France introduced a parity law in 2000 which has failed to live up to the hype. Although parties are compelled to field 50% women candidates, weak sanctions enable larger parties to avoid doing so, and many parties place most women candidates in unwinnable seats. As a result, the number of women MPs went from 10.9% pre-parity to 12.3% in 2002 and 18.5% in 2007. This year saw a more substantial rise to 26.9%, although this was still somewhat disappointing. Hollande’s Socialist party were successful in selecting women in target seats, though their predominantly male incumbents prevented them from achieving full parity. In contrast, Sarkozy’s UMP party selected even fewer women than in 2007, and a number of its female incumbents lost their seats. This is because many UMP women MPs were in marginal seats that the party never expected to win. Once the country swung to the left, these women were the first to lose their seats. Therefore, gains made by the left were counterbalanced by the low proportions of women elected on the right.
Within the parliament, a further blow came in the appointment of the Speaker. This position carries significant weight in France, and had been promised informally to Ségolène Royal. Royal vacated her parliamentary seat in 2007 to contest the presidential election; rather than displacing the MP who replaced her, she was “parachuted” into a neighbouring seat. However, an ambitious male Socialist in that constituency ran against Royal as a dissident candidate. Many UMP voters switched their backing to him in order to thwart Royal’s national ambitions, resulting in her defeat. The Socialists reiterated their desire for a female Speaker, but without Royal, it was not possible to garner support for an alternative female candidate in time. As a result, the Speaker is a man, and so are the leaders of all six party delegations within parliament. The composition of parliamentary committees also reflects traditional gender lines, with women heavily over-represented in the least prestigious committees of social and cultural affairs, and under-represented in the powerful committees for finance and foreign affairs. One consolation is that women now preside over the foreign affairs, defence and social affairs committees, equating to three women chairs out of eight.
Overall, women now enjoy greater presence in the French parliament and government, a few positions of power within parliament, and a full women’s rights ministry. All these advances are to be applauded. However, the gains are still smaller and slower than originally hoped, with most positions of power still occupied by men. A new alliance of right-wing women has now been formed in protest at their very weak position. The UMP had better listen to them, as the Socialists have now threatened to remove all state funding for any party not respecting parity. If this becomes law, all parties will have to play ball by 2017 and France will leave the UK trailing far behind.