Feminism / Politics / Society

Women in Politics: Towards Gender Equity?

An essay on the importance for French women of having female role models in politics

by Alice Bonnet

15 of the most prominent female politicians in France. ©AFP/Joel Saget
15 of the most prominent female politicians in France. ©AFP/Joel Saget

This week, a manifesto called “We, female journalists in politics” was published in the newspaper Liberation[1]. In this article, forty women journalists denounce the sexism they experience every day in the course of their work. Since its publication, the article has spurred public debate. And that is a good thing. This manifesto raises a variety of important questions. The first is that of sexism in politics: sexist behaviors are increasingly exposed and their existence can no longer be denied. Secondly, like these female journalists, I want to stress the importance of creating a public space where women can speak up against the discriminations they encounter. So much remains to be done. This leads us to one major question: to what extent can the emphasis on powerful women in the public sphere contribute to the emergence of female figures of influence, and in turn lead to a stronger representation of women in politics? Do young women have mentors that they can look up to today? And why is it necessary for them to have such mentors?

Sexism within the political sphere

The representation of French women in politics is slowly improving. We still have only 27% of women in the Assemblée Nationale (the lower house of the bicameral Parliament), and 25% in the Sénat (the upper house of Parliament)[2]. Since 2012, the proportion of female MPs has reached 26.9%, an improvement compared to 2007 when it was 18.5%. At this rate (+ 48 compared to the previous Parliament), gender parity could be reached at the Assemblée Nationale in fifteen years. In 2014, 87 women were elected to the Sénat. They represent 25% of the members of the Sénat, compared with a mere 17% a decade ago. However, only 16% of city mayors are women, and only 6 of the 41 French cities with over 100,000 inhabitants are governed by women. And only one of the 22 metropolitan areas is governed by a woman.

female french politicians

Source: Public data

Source: Public data

Source: Public data

If we compare France to other European countries, Spain ranks first with regards to the place of women in politics. In fact, since 2004, the government has achieved equal representation between men and women, and the Spanish Parliament counts 36,6% of women.

The most gender-equal European countries have been the Northern European ones since the 1970/80’s, despite stagnation in recent years, with around 40% of female MPs (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden).

If one agrees that the minimum threshold for fair representation of women in politics is 30% of female MPs, then France is really lagging behind. This fact must be highlighted, particularly in response to the general idea that progress achieved in recent years has addressed this situation.

Now, granting women a greater presence in politics is not an end in itself. The goal is to change the current framework in order to modify the deep-seated structure of political and public debates, thereby ensuring that women have equal access to political institutions. The now ongoing public discussions in France can make us believe (and that’s good news) that we have overcome the barriers preventing women from being part of political life. But we must now move to a more ambitious scale, in order for women to support and inspire one another, and to build a new paradigm for women in politics.

There is thus a need for strong female figures in politics; and in fact, the trend favoring the emergence of strong women in politics may very well be underway. For example, “Europe Ecologie- Les Verts” (French Green Party) spokeswoman Sandrine Rousseau has just published a book entitled “Survival Guide for Women in Politics”, which, a few years ago, would have been mocked. In this book, she criticizes the fact that newly-elected female politicians are still suspected of being incompetent, and of achieving such positions thanks to quotas or by resorting to sexual favors.

She also points out politicians’ lack of awareness, especially within older generations, who may arguably not always be aware of their own sexist bias and behaviors. Generational renewal tends to bring politicians who are more attentive to this issue, although none have commented, or even supported, the book of their colleague Ms. Rousseau.

Sandrine Rousseau. Image via sandrinerousseau.fr

Sandrine Rousseau. Image via sandrinerousseau.fr

Do women have a specific way of voting?

The case of female politicians in France is also particularly interesting because it cannot be detached from the way women vote. Studies have indeed shown that women have long had a more “moderate” vote than men. Since 1944, the percentage of female voters has been lower than that of male voters, and women were more likely than men to vote for right-wing candidates. In the 1980’s, two significant trends emerged which are particularly relevant to today’s political climate: women became more likely than men to support socialist and “green” candidates, and less willing to vote in favor of the extreme right (Front National)[3].

The cultural factors behind these specificities are worth analyzing. Although not all women are sensitive to feminist ideas, most of them tend to believe in their achievements and to self-identify as “ordinary feminists”. François Mitterrand was the first politician to demand the legalization of contraception in 1965, while in the 1980’s Jean-Marie Le Pen asked for the abolition of the right to abortion and wanted to expel women from the labor market and send them back home with a “maternal salary”.

But what about nowadays then? Has the way women vote changed?

Yes, indeed. Female voters in the last presidential elections in 2012 were involved just as much as their male counterparts. This differs from the 2007 elections, in which women had clearly not voted for the FN in the same proportion as men had (7% against 10.44%[4]). This was the last presidential campaign for Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 2012, Marine Le Pen has further managed to attract female voters. The female vote for the FN was for the first time in its history at the same level as the national average (18%), with the FN scoring highest among uneducated young women (23% of 25-34 year-old women, and 24% among 25-49 year-old women). On the contrary, right-wing candidate and former President Nicolas Sarkozy scored highest with female voters aged 65 years and over, and François Hollande, in contrast, with younger women. Let us also point out that François Hollande achieved his highest score among highly-educated women.

Marine Le Pen’s new-found popularity among young women is even more surprising, because the relationship between Marine Le Pen and women is complicated. Her speeches never address the issues faced by women, and she herself was always careful to be regarded as a politician and not a ‘female politician’. She comes from a wealthy family, and only launched her political career when her father told her to, and subjected most of her actions and decisions to her father’s will for many years. The party officials, the core values and the basis of the FN electorate have hardly changed since the 1970’s. Marine Le Pen now intends to be the only French politician catering to the popular class, but never speaks specifically about or to the popular female electorate.

Like Rejane Senac brilliantly put it: “Sexism in politics, even when it masquerades as well-meaning, harmless seduction, goes against equal treatment because it assigns women to be specific beings, complementary but not equal[5]“.

Image via taxalia.blogspot.com

Image via taxalia.blogspot.com

The need to create a public space where women have their say

Beyond the specific political problems women can encounter, i.e. being elected and holding elective office, the core issue has to do with women’s presence in the public debate at large. Greater female presence would influence the terms of political debate on several crucial issues. There are still too few female experts in debates and on television panels, and females over the age of 60 are especially absent from the public eye, unlike their male counterparts, whose credibility grows with time. There are still too many editorials exclusively signed by men in the newspapers, too few female leaders known to the general public.

This situation engenders many problems: how can young girls identify with female role models in the political sphere if they are still so few public female figures?

Younger generations are accused of losing interest in public affairs, but how could they be interested when the political world is dominated by white men over 50, while these men only represent 15% of the French population? Today, the youngest member of the National Assembly is 32 years old, which is an improvement; his name is Olivier Dussopt and he is… a man.

Substantial progress has been made, make no mistake. But beyond politics, some figures inspire caution: for instance, only 27% of women work in the IT sector. Again, it seems obvious to think that the existence and visibility of female models and mentors in greater numbers would help reverse this trend. This also plays a part in another important issue: social mobility. In this regard, increasing the potential for the social mobility of women between politics and other aspects of public life, including to the corporate world, will likely create the required conditions for real equality between women and men.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's COO, on the cover of March 2013's issue of Time Magazine.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, on the cover of March 2013’s issue of Time Magazine.

Do French women have any female mentors in public affairs?

Mentors, idols, Pygmalion, stars? The word itself is not important. What matters is helping more female figures gain access to the public forum, so that 51% of the French population may more easily identify to successful politicians and have the chance to dream big. Women should be able to exist not only as individuals but also to form associations, collectives, schools of thought in equal proportion to men, so that the French society may finally live up to its motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. It should no longer be about giving women the leftovers. The objective should be that young boys and girls, during joint discussions, may admire French women’s journey to real equality. So that this young generation, girls and boys alike, may want to call themselves feminists, not as an exclusionary speech but as part of their values and political inheritance: a simple, inclusive equality movement catering to anyone and everyone.

So, who’s your mentor?

Notes:

[1] See “Nous, femmes journalistes en politique..”, Liberation, May 4th 2015, http://www.liberation.fr/politiques/2015/05/04/nous-femmes-journalistes-en-politique_1289613

[2] http://www.inegalites.fr/spip.php?article59

[3] Here, I refer to the 1984 European elections, to the 1986 legislative elections, and to the 1988 presidential elections. See the article “le vote des femmes en France (1945-1993) by Janine Mossuz-Lavau, p. 673-689, http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/rfsp_0035-2950_1993_num_43_4_396218

[4] See the CSA poll, “le vote des femmes au premier tour de l’élection présidentielle, avril 2012”, http://www.csa.eu/multimedia/data/sondages/data2012/opi20120422-sondage-jour-du-vote-le-vote-des-femmes-au-1er-tour-de-l-election-presidentielle.pdf

[5] See her interview in Libération, “les femmes sont assignées à être des êtres complémentaires, non des égales”, published on May, 7th, http://www.liberation.fr/politiques/2015/05/04/les-femmes-sont-assignees-a-etre-des-complementaires-non-des-egales_1289581

[1] See “Nous, femmes journalistes en politique..”, Liberation, May 4th 2015, http://www.liberation.fr/politiques/2015/05/04/nous-femmes-journalistes-en-politique_1289613

[2] http://www.inegalites.fr/spip.php?article59

[3] Here, I refer to the 1984 European elections, to the 1986 legislative elections, and to the 1988 presidential elections. See the article “le vote des femmes en France (1945-1993) by Janine Mossuz-Lavau, p. 673-689, http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/rfsp_0035-2950_1993_num_43_4_396218

[4] See the CSA poll, “le vote des femmes au premier tour de l’élection présidentielle, avril 2012”, http://www.csa.eu/multimedia/data/sondages/data2012/opi20120422-sondage-jour-du-vote-le-vote-des-femmes-au-1er-tour-de-l-election-presidentielle.pdf

[5] See her interview in Libération, “les femmes sont assignées à être des êtres complémentaires, non des égales”, published on May, 7th, http://www.liberation.fr/politiques/2015/05/04/les-femmes-sont-assignees-a-etre-des-complementaires-non-des-egales_1289581

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