The French government plans to change the constitution later this year to encourage "equal access" for women to politics and senior civil service jobs. Socialist members of parliament have already gone one step further. They have drafted changes to electoral law which would demand parity - i.e. absolutely equal numbers of men and women - in lists of candidates for all parties at the European elections next year and the regional elections in 2003.
The proposed change, partly fulfilling an election promise made last year by the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, is highly controversial, dividing opinion on both Right and Left. The French constitution already guarantees equality for all citizens; it has never previously distinguished between men and women.
During the general election campaign last May, Mr Jospin promised a legal guarantee of political parity between the sexes.
At the insistence of the Gaullist President, Jacques Chirac, the word "parity" will not appear in the proposed new wording. Article Three of the constitution of the Fifth Republic would be re-worded to "favour equal access" of men and women "to elected and official positions". The word "parity" appears only in the preamble to the amendment, which should go either to a public referendum or a congress of both houses of parliament this autumn.
Most women politicians in both left- and right-wing parties welcomed the change yesterday. Segolene Royal, the education minister, said it was "a moment of great historical importance".
But the well-known feminist writer and activist Elisabeth Badinter said the amendment would "introduce biology into politics". It would "radically alter" the spirit of the French Republic, based on the concept of "citizenhood", which allowed "any other human being to represent all the others".
Women would be the sufferers in the long run, she said. It would be assumed that women politicians held office because the law demanded it, not because of their own abilities. To this argument, French women politicians retort: "Never mind the principles, look at the reality."
Until last year France had a smaller proportion of women in parliament than any other European country. Women were not even allowed to vote in France until 1945. There are now 60 women deputies in the National Assembly, or just over 10 per cent, which is more respectable but behind Britain (17 per cent) and most other EU countries.
Even this total has been achieved only because Mr Jospin's Socialist Party introduced its own policy last year of insisting that 30 per cent of its candidates should be women.
In 1996, 10 prominent French women from both sides of the political divide, including Simone Veil, the liberal former health minister, and Edith Cresson, briefly and disastrously a Socialist Prime Minister, decided enough was enough.
They called for constitutional changes to encourage a better gender balance in parliament. For the barriers against French women in politics to be so great," they wrote in their manifesto, "there must be in our civic history and culture, something more rooted than simple prejudice."Reuse content