Alexa

Royal's campaign for the presidency marks breakthrough for women in France

Royal's campaign for the presidency marks breakthrough for women in France

France has championed the Rights of Man for centuries, but did not give woman the right to vote until the end of World War II _ decades after Turkish and Soviet women were casting ballots. Things are not much better today: Afghanistan, Iraq and 83 other countries have a larger ratio of women in parliament than France does.
That's why Segolene Royal's fight for the French presidency is so pivotal _ and, she says, so tough.
If the Socialist candidate wins May 6, she will have overcome not only a formidable rival in conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, who leads in polls a week before the vote, but also a male-driven political culture that has kept France well behind its peers in embracing women in leadership.
Even if she loses, change is in the air. Both she and Sarkozy say their governments would be half female, half male. Sarkozy included feminist icon Simone Veil in his campaign team. Women candidates on left and right hope to capitalize on the Royal phenomenon for parliamentary elections in June.
"Not so long ago everyone said you slept with someone to get your job" when a woman reached the top rungs, said Margie Sudre, a former government minister and one of the first female regional governors. "They even said it about Edith Cresson," she said in an interview, referring to France's only female prime minister, who served 11 months in 1991-1992.
Sudre was among 12 women appointed to Prime Minister Alain Juppe's government in 1995 in a burst of egalitarian enthusiasm. Five months later, Juppe dismissed eight of the so-called "Juppettes" in a cost-cutting reform _ and just one male minister.
France is not buried in a bygone era, though. It gave the world the morning-after pill, mandates generous maternity and paternity leave, and is the envy of mothers in neighboring countries for its free preschools and day care.
The French revere Joan of Arc and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, and French women treasure their access to state-funded abortion. Yet many cling to traditional standards of beauty and stereotypes of the fashionable, flirty French female.
"If you don't play the role of a woman who's a bit seductive, you struggle," said Noelle Lenoir, the first woman to head the Constitutional Council, one of the highest powers in the land, and France's minister for Europe from 2002 to 2004.
"The fact that for the first time in the history of France a woman is in the (presidential) runoff is a considerable shift in mentality," she said in an interview.
Yet polls show that gender did not make much of a difference in Sunday's first round of voting, when Sarkozy won 31.5 percent of the vote and Royal 25.8 percent. Ten other candidates _ including three women _ were eliminated after that round.
Women overall favored Sarkozy by 5 percent, just a fraction less than the population at large, according to exit polls by Ipsos.
What does that mean for Round Two? Some say May 6 will be the test of whether France is really ready for a woman president. But most say the choice will come down to politics and personality.
Sarkozy pledges reform for a down-on-itself nation and would make the French work more. But he worries many with his uncompromising _ some say macho _ language on fighting crime and limiting immigration.
Royal is harder to define. She wants to solve France's problems by boosting government spending, and appeals to disillusioned voters by pledging a new, less elitist kind of politics.
"There's still a long road ahead of us, in France and the world," Royal says in a recent book of interviews. Her own party long pinned its hopes on the father of her four children, Socialist Party boss Francois Hollande, but voters preferred her.
Dominique Voynet, a former environment minister and the Green Party candidate in this year's first round election, said she was asked repeatedly who was caring for her daughter during the campaign.
"It's a question that apparently was never asked of (centrist candidate) Francois Bayrou, who has six children, or of (far-right candidate) Philippe de Villiers, who has seven," she said in an interview.
In her book, Royal recalls the three women who served in leftist Leon Blum's government in the 1930s _ when they still were not allowed to vote. Gen. Charles de Gaulle gave French women that right in 1944, after they had joined the Resistance and risked their lives to free France from the Nazis.
Women have fared slightly better in French business, leading several big companies.
In December _ weeks after Royal was chosen as the opposition Socialists' presidential candidate _ the conservative government approved new rules to ensure women's access to power in local and regional governments through quota-like requirements.
Just 14 percent of France's national legislature is female _ a score that places the country 86th in a list of 192 compiled by the Interparliamentary Union in March.
In government, Sweden has boasted a 50-50 split since 1994, and Spain's government has done so since 2004.
The United States isn't too far ahead of France when it comes to political parity.
Women make up just 16.3 percent of Congress, where Nancy Pelosi has since January been the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives. And Hillary Rodham Clinton's is the first high-profile female candidacy for U.S. president.


Updated : 2021-04-13 07:30 GMT+08:00