Saturday, December 16, 2006

French Culture Resists Role for Women in Politics

The French Socialist Party has nominated Segolene Royal as the party nominee for the 2007 presidential election. Royal's nomination has stirred debate across the country on the proper role for women in French politics and society. This Christian Science Monitor report has the details:

When Catherine Bailhache was running for a regional council seat in the Atlantic coast area of Brittany earlier this month, she asked for help from the party bosses. But the men - and the kingpins of her center-right party were men - suddenly had other things to do.

She blames the macho streak in French politics.

"There's a certain political culture that believes women should not get involved in politics because they have to take care of their homes and families," says Ms. Bailhache.

The national symbol of France is the bare-breasted warrior-mother, Marianne, who is said to represent liberty, reason, and homeland.

But, despite Ségolène Royal's recent nomination as the country's first female major-party presidential candidate, most real-life French women still find themselves on the sidelines of the political battlefield and less than equal in the corporate world.

A new study by the World Economic Forum, released last month, ranked France in 70th place in terms of parity between men and women in public and economic life, out of a field of 115 countries representing 90 percent of the world's population.

France was beaten by, among others, China, Peru, Russia, Poland, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. The ranking of the United States was 22, Canada was 14th, and the United Kingdom was ninth best in overall success in closing the gender gap.

The Forum, a nonprofit organization based in Switzerland, is best known for its annual gatherings of world political and business leaders. Its rankings were based on comparisons of men's and women's salaries, their presence in high-level jobs, access to higher education, representation in political decisionmaking, and life expectancy.

The report's authors said it is "a snapshot of where men and women stand" on fundamental rights, and measures how close countries have come to closing the gender gap.

On average, most of the surveyed countries have nearly closed the gap in education and health and have made progress in the leveling the economic playing field, said Saadia Zahidi , an economist and director of the Forum's women leadership program. The biggest disparities, she said, were in political life empowerment.

The study's conclusions about France tallied with French research.

Women represent 46 percent of the working population but only one-quarter of the managerial jobs in the private sector, according to the national antidiscrimination agency.

Their salaries, on average, are 21 percent lower than the salaries of men in comparable jobs. Also, only 12 percent of the deputies in the National Assembly - and only 17 percent in the Senate - are women.

Many reasons have been offered for the dearth of women in elective office. Some commentators have said it has to do with the fact that the French were ruled by a queen only a handful of times in their history. The newspaper, Le Monde, said it is because women were excluded so long from "citizenship" and only got the right to vote in 1944.

Others point to the French feminist movement that flourished in the 1970s and focused more on social legislation, such as the right to free contraception and legal abortions, than on breaking into male-dominated political party cliques.

Even now, some French feminists bridle at the notion that French women need to fight for their place in a male-dominated political world.

Clara Dupont-Monod, a writer and activist, for example, has criticized Ms. Royal's description of her candidacy as a revolution.

"You make your gender an electoral argument," she wrote last week in the magazine Marianne. "I distrust that because it raises the argument of a battle of the sexes ... and the idea was to make a revolution with men, not against them."

Other French women, however, credit Royal with taking a new tack by making an end-run around the hidebound party establishment and appealing directly to party members to win the Socialist primary last month.

There is some precedent for women in power for the French Socialists. In 1991, Socialist President Francois Mitterand appointed Edith Cresson as French Prime Minister, the first and only time a woman has served in that position. Cresson was remarkable for her consistent hard-line on Japan in trade politics, and I remember her making quite a stir in the early 1990s when governments the world over were worried about Japan emerging as number one.

I'm interested to see how well Royal does with French voters next year. The French political culture prides itself of equality, though traditional gender roles appear pretty sticky in the French system. In the U.S., while Hillary Clinton's presidential bid is generating a lot of public attention, a recent Los Angeles Times Poll found only 4 percent saying they would not vote for a woman.

No comments: