Elections: Explaining the Timing of the French Socialist Party's Gender-Based Quota

Article excerpt


One characteristic of French political life is the small number of women holding national elective office. From 1944, when women received the vote, until the 2002 legislative elections, the percentage of female members in France's lower house, the National Assembly, ranged from a low of 1.5 percent in 1958 to a high of 12.9 percent in 2002. Data reveal that the lowest percentage of women in the Senate, France's upper house, was 1.4 percent in 1975 while the highest percentage was 16.9 percent in 2004. This absence of women from the highest reaches of politics is particularly striking when France is compared to other member states of the European Union. For example, currently women possess approximately 45 percent of legislative seats in Sweden, 32 percent in Germany, 28 percent in Spain and 18 percent in the United Kingdom) In fact, France is often referred to as la lanterne rouge de l'Europe (Europe's caboose) because the only other country with so few female parliamentarians is Greece. (2)

Scholars of gender and French politics have argued that women are more poorly represented in France than in other European countries because of a combination of historical, social and political factors. While the work of these scholars has contributed to our knowledge of the barriers that keep women out of French political life, it underestimates the measures that political parties have taken to advance women in the political system. Specifically, in 1973 the French Socialist Party (PS) adopted a quota for women in the party leadership and for female candidates, and in the decades since, the party has increased and implemented the quota at various times.

Other scholars have recognized the role parties play in increasing the number of women in politics, but their studies are problematic because they do not provide adequate accounts for variations in a party's gender-based measures. Thus, the following question needs to be answered: Why do party officials adopt gender quotas at one time, increase the quotas at other times, and implement them in some elections, but not in others? In other words, how can we account for the decisions of political actors?

This study uses the case of the French Socialists to show that electoral incentives best explain the timing of party officials' quota decisions. It would be easy to assume that the ideological predispositions of party officials and the agendas of women's organizations and party feminists would be determinant here, but there are two main reasons why this is not the case. First, non-electoral explanations, like ideology, fail to consider the constraints imposed on actors by the electoral system. If political actors try to ensure that they win an electoral game defined by the existing electoral system, it seems unlikely that non-electoral concerns would outweigh strategic or electoral ones. Second, evidence suggests that PS officials responded to feminists' requests for gender quotas only when they had electoral incentives to do so. Specifically, women's organizations' demands for quotas were met when these organizations posed an electoral threat, and PS feminists' quota proposals succeeded when party officials had electoral incentives to co-opt them. (3)

This work thus underscores the importance of taking party officials' electoral incentives into consideration when analyzing women's political representation. It also contributes to our understanding of the reasons why parties advance or retard the number of women in politics. In contrast to the argument that parties are obstacles blocking women's entry into political office, this study shows that party officials have specific motivations to adopt measures to promote women which, in turn, affect overall patterns of women's political representation.

The French Socialist Party was selected for two reasons. First, it is the only party in France that has gender-based quotas. While left-wing parties like the Communist Party (PC) and the Green Party have nominated relatively large numbers of women to run for office, neither party has quotas for female candidates. …