French political commentators (the great majority of them men) say there has never been an election where so much attention has been paid to the women's issue. By the "women's issue" they mean the fact that France has a lower proportion of women in its national parliament than any European Union country except Greece, and that women in employment earn on average 25 per cent less than men.
French maternity and nursery arrangements may be the envy of women elsewhere in the EU, but when it comes to political power and senior public service jobs, France's record is not impressive.
Strangely, perhaps, the running in the women's rights stakes has not been made by the Socialists, but by the stolid Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister. Cynics say this is because he was cannily advised to "go for the women's vote" when he started to fall behind in the polls. Others attribute it to the influence in his team of Simone Veil, a staunch supporter of women's rights and the Social Affairs Minister in his government.
Last month, Mr Balladur - having uttered not a word about women's rights in his campaign programme - suddenly said he supported a 30 per cent quota for women in lists of candidates for political office, and would submit the idea to a referendum forthwith if he became President. Later, he pledged that one third of his cabinet would be women and he would legislate on equal pay.
Mr Jospin, lagging behind on women's rights except for a bald statement of principle in his programme, then promised to reinstate a ministry for women's affairs, and give funding incentives to party organisations that met targets for the number of women candidates. Until that point, the Socialists had tended to rest on their laurels, citing the fact that France's first woman prime minister - Edith Cresson - was a Socialist, while neglecting to say that her tenure was both short and controversial.
Jacques Chirac has been the most reticent on women's rights and actively opposes quotas. The introduction of quotas, he said, would mean that women would not be elected for who they were but because it was a legal requirement. Of Mr Balladur's offer of 10 ministerial posts, he said: "It is already difficult to find the necessary number of male ministers; but it would be very difficult to find female ministers with the experience and competence - you can't appoint just anyone." Shortly afterwards, however, he promised to establish an equal rights monitoring committee under the aegis of the prime minister, and matched Mr Jospin's offer of party funding incentives.
The three main candidates recognise that winning the women's vote in the first round of balloting on Sunday is crucial. All have held high- profile meetings with the National Council of French Women, the umbrella for 120 women's organisations throughout the country, and with women company directors. All are deftly adapting their programmes to make them more woman-friendly: not just equal pay, but better political recognition - and representation. Women constitute 53 per cent of the population, yet the proportion of women in the National Assembly - at 6 per cent - is scarcely different from 50 years ago, and of nine official candidates for the presidency only two are women, both very much on the fringe: Arlette Laguiller, the Trotskyist, and Dominique Voynet of the Greens.
Both are scathing about what they see as the macho culture of French politics, as is Yvette Roudy, the mayor of Lisieux, Mr Jospin's host yesterday.
Ms Roudy tried to introduce quotas for political representation in 1982, when she was minister for women's affairs, but her bill was thrown out by the Constitutional Council - on the grounds that the principle of equality was enshrined in the constitution, and that any system of quotas would make one category of person more equal than others.
The problem for supporters of change is that Mr Chirac seems to have collared the women's vote almost before it became an issue - with a mixture of political persuasiveness and personal charm.
And because so much of this campaign revolves around personalities rather than policies, the question of women's representation may be left behind once again.Reuse content