French Women in Politics: The Long Road to Parity

The March 2001 municipal elections in France did not produce the expected vague rose—or electoral domination of the Left—but French politics are nonetheless taking on a distinctively pinker tint. For the first time since its adoption last year, the law on political parity, ensuring equal access to political representation for both men and women, has been implemented.

Women have long been underrepresented in French politics. French women have only been able to vote and eligible to serve in office since 1944, significantly later than in countries such as the United States (1920, although they could stand for elections beginning in 1788), Britain (1918), Germany (1918), or even in Sri Lanka (1931). The number of French women in office remained low for 50 years. In 1945, women represented 5% of National Assembly députés. In 1996, they still made up only 6% of députés, although they constituted 53% of the electorate. Following the 1997 legislative elections, women now make up close to 11% of députés, but still only 5.9% of senators.

This level of representation is below that of all other European countries, except Greece. Most Scandinavian countries, for example, have achieved significant female representation in parliaments, from 43% in Sweden to 35% in Iceland, and although Swiss women had to wait until 1971 to be allowed to vote, they now make up 23% of federal MPs. A large number of developing countries have also achieved a more balanced gender representation, from Mozambique and South Africa (30%) to Vietnam (26%) and China (22%).

At the local level, women’s representation is even lower. Just before the recent municipal elections, only 8% of French mayors were women—compared to 2.3% in 1977—and most of them served in villages of less than 700 people.

Only three cities of over 50,000 people had female mayors, including Strasbourg and Avignon. The situation is similar within the national government. Although women first held ministerial positions in the late 1930s, before they were even allowed to vote, the number of women ministers remained negligible for decades after women became part of the electorate.

The Origins of Parity

Early advances for women were made in the 1970s under the conservative Presidency of Valéry Giscard D?Estaing, when such prominent women as Simone Veil and Françoise Giroud entered the government. They have left a significant political imprint, especially on women’s issues. As Minister of Health from 1976 to 1979, Simone Veil promoted access to abortion, which had been legalized in 1975. In 1974, Françoise Giroud became the first junior minister of women?s issues. Subsequent politicians on the Left went further, promoting women in all areas of French politics. During the 1981 presidential campaign, François Mitterrand?s 47th proposition was to establish minimum female quotas of 30% for legislative elections. Upon becoming President, he opened government positions to more women, especially outside of their traditional portfolios of health, education and women?s affairs. In 1991, he appointed the first and only female Prime Minister, Edith Cresson. The experiment, however, was short-lived. Cresson today is better remembered for her outspoken views on British sexuality and her disastrous popularity ratings than for her economic policies. She resigned only six months after her appointment.

Conservative parties have tried to convince the public that the Left was not the only political group anxious to carve out a better place for women in politics. Since their laudable performance during the 1970s, however, the conservative track record has been mixed. In 1995, President Jacques Chirac created the Observatoire de la Parité, a body designed to monitor gender inequalities and report them to the Prime Minister?s office. But when in November 1995, then Prime Minister Alain Juppé dismissed eight of the twelve women in his government only six months after their appointment—an incident that was dubbed “Black Tuesday” in the US press—the image of the Right as a potential advocate of women in politics was shattered.

In 1996, ten prominent women politicians from both sides of the political spectrum published a manifesto demanding that the concept of political parity be enshrined in the French constitution.

“From condescending indifference and contempt to open hostility,” wrote the signatories, “we have been able to measure the gap between public principles and reality in the behavior of the political class.” The idea of forced parity was hardly new. Already in 1974, Françoise Giroud proposed that 15% of electoral list slots be reserved for women during municipal elections. In 1982, the National Assembly approved a bill raising this quota to 25%, although the text was eventually deemed unconstitutional because it divided into categories the abstract and indivisible concept of “citizen.” The idea of forced parity was further promoted by Au pouvoir, citoyennes! Liberté, égalité, parité, a book published in 1992 that turned parity into a campaign theme during the 1995 presidential elections.

Coming in the wake of this debate, the 1996 manifesto sparked positive reactions on both sides of the political spectrum. Socialist leader Lionel Jospin was quick to translate the concept into an electoral advantage. In his first speech as Prime Minister in 1997, he committed to proposing a constitutional amendment that would pave the way for parity.

On June 28, 1999, articles 3 and 4 of the French Constitution were amended. The law promoting equal access for men and women to elected positions was adopted on June 6, 2000.

Electoral Parity

The 1999 law has introduced a de facto quota system for women in French politics. Political parties now have to endorse an equal number of men and women candidates in municipal, legislative and European elections (with the exception of towns of fewer than 3,500 people). Parties failing to meet this requirement either have their lists declared ineligible or, for legislative elections, face financial sanctions. To ensure that women are not relegated to the bottom of electoral rolls, a balance must be maintained throughout the list. By next year, France will therefore be able to boast one of the most feminized political leaderships in the world, ahead even of the Scandinavian countries.

The March municipal elections have shown that applying the law has not always been easy. In some areas of France, meeting the 50% requirement posed a challenge because of a lack of women volunteers. Aspiring mayors of all political shades have therefore been seeking new women candidates to meet their quotas, and several extreme right lists have had to withdraw for lack of female participation. In a few cases, as in the town of Les Ulis near Paris, too many women proposed to seek office, and some had to step down to ensure that their male counterparts could meet their own share of the quota.

The reform has enjoyed broad popular support. Already in 1996, 74% of the electorate favored establishing quotas for electoral rolls.

An opinion poll published in the quarterly review Lunes prior to the March 2001 municipal elections revealed that two French voters out of three would welcome a woman mayor in their town.

Although there was no significant difference of opinion between men and women, 73 percent of left-wing voters were open to the idea compared to 55 percent of right-wing voters. Over 60 percent of all respondents felt that having more women in municipal councils would reinforce democracy and improve political decisions in a large number of areas, from education and environment to financial management and security. Even the Catholic Church gave its blessing. In a declaration published before the elections, the Social Commission of French Bishops declared that society would benefit from women?s increased political representation and that everyone should support and encourage their commitment.

The Limits to Parity

The idea of pursuing political parity through strict quotas has not received unanimous support in France. The US experience with affirmative action, for example, suggested that forced integration had serious limitations. While few contested the fact that women needed to play a more important role in politics, many were sceptical of the method. The debate has divided both the political world and the feminist movement. In February 1999, 14 prominent women, including philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, lawyer Evelyne Pisier and writer Danièle Sallenave, publicly voiced their opposition to forced parity.

They argued that the reform would undermine the concept of universalism in political representation and therefore open the door to demands from other specific groups based on race, religion, or sexual preference. For feminists fighting for gender blindness, the law therefore represented a step backward.

Other women have found the idea insulting and unnecessary. They claim that France’s political elites will not be able to ignore public opinion favoring a more feminized representation indefinitely. They cite as an example the Scandinavian experience in which high levels of female political representation were achieved without formal quotas. According to Michèle Alliot Marie, president of the center-right political party Rassemblement pour la République (RPR), the proposed reform was not only “completely hypocritical and inapplicable,” but also “an insult to women.” But with public opinion behind the reform, and with support from both Socialist Prime Minister Jospin and RPR President Chirac, these critics have had little impact. The constitutional reform was approved by 745 votes to 43, with 48 abstaining.

Achieving political parity, whether through legal means or through a gradual change in attitudes, represents only one facet of a broader social change that will be necessary in France. French women still face open discrimination in their professional lives, both in advancement and in salary levels. Although over 56% of women have received higher education, they make up less than 5% of senior managers in the largest 200 French companies and earn on average 20% less than men.

Responding to this problem, the Government has written a law, adopted on 24 April 2000, mandating negotiations on professional parity within companies and sectors. The discussion of gender inequalities in politics and business also masks the more fundamental issue of the unequal division of tasks at home. A government study conducted in 1999 has confirmed that women still bear 80% of domestic tasks.

Working women still spent over three hours on domestic tasks every day. This is only four minutes less than in 1986, and still a staggering two hours more than their male counterparts. This heavy burden of work at home remains a practical obstacle for women wishing to take on political and corporate responsibilities. “Responsibilities for day-to-day life still rest on women,” said Elisabeth Guigou, now Minister of Labor. “Day-to-day life is particularly difficult for a woman politician since politics is one of the activities that least respects the rhythms of private time.”

Only the Communist Party so far has addressed this issue—it now provides domestic support to its female candidates with children during electoral campaigns.

At work as in politics, parity will have to start at home.

Caroline Lambert is a freelance writer based in London.