The French Connect to Women at Long Last

By Rebecca McQuillan
Published November 17th 2006 in The Herald

For years, the face of French politics has been male. The man they call "The Bulldozer", two-time Prime Minister and twice President, Jacques Chirac, has towered over the nation since 1995. Before that, the late Francois Mitterrand was the nation's figurehead for 14 years.

Finally, that looks set to change. Following huge opinion-poll leads over her rivals, Segolene Royal is hoping to be endorsed as the Socialist party's presidential candidate in the party "primaries", the first round of which took place yesterday.

The prospect of a woman President has sent a ripple of excitement through a jaded electorate, with one newspaper poll putting Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy level if they face each other in the final round of voting in the election next year.

After the false dawn brought by Margaret Thatcher, it is tempting to imagine Royal's emergence, coming just a year after the election of Angela Merkel as Chancellor in Germany, heralds a new age in which more women will sit at the head of Europe's cabinet tables and its governments. But that would be premature. "There's a symbolic importance to having women leaders and it does have an enormous impact on women's feeling of connectedness to politics, but whether that signals a broader move towards women getting into positions of power is a moot point," says Dr Katherine Rake, director of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality between men and women.

That's not to say things aren't moving in the right direction; they're just doing so at a snail's pace. Change has to come from below and, as yet, the representation of women in parliaments around the world is increasing only slowly. Christine McCartney is women's officer at the Electoral Reform Society and monitors election results around the world. "We are seeing an upward trend and I don't think we've seen any election this year where numbers of women elected have gone down," she says. "In terms of women leaders, it's also been a good year. There are women Presidents now in Liberia and Chile. But it's gradual change."

The UK, like France, fares poorly on the number of women elected to parliament. The House of Commons is ranked 14th in the list of 25 EU member states, according to the Interparliamentary Union – 19.5% of MPs are women (126 out of 645). Britain trails Spain, Latvia, Poland and Lithuania. The Scandinavian countries are best – women make up 45.3% of MPs in Sweden and 37.5% in Finland. Languishing at the bottom of the table are Italy, Hungary and Malta, which has only 9.1% female MPs. France has 12.2%. The devolved nations fare much better. Following the 2003 election, 39.5% of MSPs were women (51 of 129). Leading the field not only in British but in global terms, is the Welsh Assembly: 50.8% are women, based on the 2003 election results.

Why is this? There are several reasons, according to McCartney. The gender mix is about 10% better in elections using proportional representation than in first-past-the-post, she says. This is because local parties choosing lists or selecting candidates for multimember constituencies try to achieve gender parity, whereas five local parties picking one candidate might play safe and follow the stereotype, choosing men. Another factor is the parliament. "With new parliaments, there's no need to challenge an incumbent MP, who will normally be a man," says McCartney. "Incumbency is one of the biggest challenges to increasing women's representation."

Ironically, some of the old democracies trail the new. One of the world's best performers is Rwanda. This brings up the issue of positive discrimination. Rwanda reserves seats for women. In Belgium, party lists are rejected if there is not gender parity and in France parties lose funding. Such measures are still controversial: French parties, for instance, tend to prefer paying up rather than imposing gender balance.

It will take more than one woman to feminise the face of French politics, then, but others are set to follow where Segolene Royal is leading.