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."

Suggested Topics
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Sport
footballMan City manager would have loved to have signed Argentine
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site on Friday

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
News
i100
Sport
Enner Valencia
footballStriker has enjoyed a rapid rise to fame via winning the title with ‘The Blue Ballet’ in Ecuador
Arts and Entertainment
A top literary agent has compared online giant Amazon to Isis
arts + entsAndrew Wylie has pulled no punches in criticism of Amazon
Arts and Entertainment
Charlie Sheen said he would
tv

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities