A woman's place is in the House

Whoever wins the election in France, the number of female MPs is expected at least to double, writes John Lichfield

Whoever wins the French election, it will be a significant victory for half of the French nation - the women.

At present France - the country of Joan of Arc, the nation whose ever- present Republican symbol is a woman - has a smaller proportion of women in parliament than any other EU country. Even more startlingly, France comes 72nd in the world league of female representation in politics: behind Uganda, behind Togo, behind Kazakhstan.

Whatever the outcome of the parliamentary elections on 25 May and 1 June, this will change. By party edict, 30 per cent of the Socialist candidates in the election next month are women, the first time that any French party has had such a quota. Even if the Socialists and their allies lose, they are certain to increase substantially their number of seats in the National Assembly, and therefore the number of women.

At present only four Socialist MPs are female. After the second round on 1 June, this is expected to rise to at least 50: mainly young, mostly inexperienced in national politics. The total number of female deputies should rise from 32 (5.5 per cent) to more than 70 (12 per cent): by far the highest number ever to sit in l'Assemblee Nationale.

One reason why France is having an election nine months earlier than expected is that the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, thought he could reap centre-right advantage from the Socialists' decision to discriminate in favour of women. The 30 per cent female rule, introduced only last December, means that scores of Socialist candidates, male and female, have only just been chosen and have scarcely introduced themselves to their constituencies.

"I am just at the stage of mobilising supporters," admits Marisol Touraine, 38, a Parisian high-flyer who has parachuted into the constituency of Indre-et-Loire, 200 miles south-west of the capital. "My chances would certainly have been much greater if the election had happened when expected [next March]." However, Socialist Party officials believe that the French revulsion against politics-as-usual is so great that, in 1997, it may prove surprisingly effective to be young, unknown and female.

Maybe. The prejudice against women in politics runs deep in the French political classes, but it appears to be retreating in public opinion. One of the most popular Socialist politicians is Martine Aubry, 46, the daughter of Jacques Delors. Another rising star on the left, or just left of centre, is Catherine Trautmann, 46, mayor of Strasbourg and the only woman to govern one of the larger French cities.

But why do women do so badly in politics in France? In other areas, especially the professions, and some areas of business, French women have made more progress than British.

Last year 10 prominent women politicians, including Simone Veil, the liberal former health minister, and the Socialist Edith Cresson, France's first woman Prime Minister, decided enough was enough. They called for party quotas for women candidates, but said it might also be necessary to make constitutional changes. "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."

But what? Partly, it is argued, history itself. The Salic law excluded women from succession to the French crown. As a result, there was no female leader of France - even a titular leader - between Joan of Arc and Edith Cresson. French women did not gain the right to vote, or stand for parliament, until 1945.

And yet French women, up to the Revolution and afterwards, have long enjoyed positions of de facto power, as wives, confidantes, mistresses and eminences grises. But this has proved to be a trap, according to Elisabeth Guigou, a former Socialist minister for European affairs. She argues in a recent book, Etre Femme en Politique, that French women always felt themselves to be taken seriously, that they had a recognised role in society, that they could speak out. But this helped to reduce the pressure from women to enter politics.

There are other reasons why French politics is man-dominated. The peculiarly French system of selecting its governing elite from a small group of prestigious colleges or grandes ecoles produces a "democratic aristocracy" which is overwhelmingly male. This is, however, changing a little. The notorious Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the elite civil service college, deserves some credit for inserting clever women into the system at the highest levels.

Another peculiarity of French politics which discriminates against women is the tendency of politicians to hold more than one post. Mr Juppe, for instance, is mayor of Bordeaux as well as Prime Minister.

Elisabeth Badinter, feminist author and political lecturer, accepts all these arguments, but believes that legal or constitutional changes to force more women into parliament would be a dangerous error. The gradualist, Socialist route, such as voluntary quotas, is the way forward.

French men cannot be forced to accept women in politics, but they can recognise a good politician when they see one. When Ms Aubry made her maiden speech to parliament, Ms Badinter recalls, she rose to muttering and jibes, and not just from her opponents. After a while, she was heard in silence, because she was making an excellent speech. "I said to myself, that is it. For the first time a woman has shut them up, without trying to seduce them or mother them. It was a great moment."

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