British women have long envied their chic French counterparts. However, when it comes to political representation, women have traditionally fared better north of the English Channel. From 1955 onwards, with a brief exception for the period 1978-87, there have been more women in the House of Commons than in the French National Assembly. The UK also had its own Iron Lady running the country for eleven years, whereas France has never had a female President. The only French women to serve as Prime Minister, Edith Cresson, lasted less than a year and was the shortest-serving Prime Minister of the Fifth Republic. She suffered widespread sexist vilification, and no woman has followed in her footsteps since she stood down in 1992. Even following the introduction of a gender parity law in 2000, requiring an equal number of male and female candidates at most elections, the proportion of women MPs remained lower in France than in the UK.
Yet in 2012, a different picture suddenly emerged. The proportion of women in the National Assembly shot up to nearly 27 per cent, which compares favourably to the 22 per cent of women in Westminster. In addition, newly elected French President François Hollande attracted positive headlines for nominating 50 per cent women to his new cabinet, while British Prime Minister David Cameron made headlines of a rather different sort when the number of female ministers in his cabinet fell even further from five to just four. Almost overnight, France went from being a laggard to being a role model for her European neighbours, not least the UK, which now has one of the lowest levels of women's representation in the whole of Europe.
This article considers how France achieved this transformation, whether the reality lives up to the headlines, and whether the UK should now be taking heed of, and seeking to copy, its Gallic neighbour. The improved situation for women in French politics was less an overnight success than a long, slow process of feminisation that is still far from complete. Sexism and barriers to women remain rife in French politics, and gender equality is elusive on both sides of the Channel. What distinguishes France from her British neighbours is that she is more aware that there is a problem, and has taken greater steps to increase women's presence in politics. Unless Britain also acknowledges the severity of its political gender gap, the gulf between the two countries looks set to widen further in the coming years, with Britain increasingly being left behind by its European neighbours.
Women's representation in parliament
The last two elections in France each saw the proportion of women in parliament increase by 50 per cent, going from 12.3 per cent in 2002 to 18.5 per cent in 2007 and 26.9 per cent in 2012. There are two main reasons for these rises. The first is France's parity law, and the second is the return to power of the left. The parity law has led to a significant rise in the number of women candidates competing for office. However, the parity law has two major flaws that have prevented it from achieving its stated goals.
Firstly, it applies only to the number of women candidates, and not to the number of women elected. As a result, French parties frequently place women candidates in unwinnable seats (Murray et al., 2012). Secondly, the law is implemented by means of a loss in state financial subsidies for parties who do not field sufficient numbers of women candidates. French parties receive state funding in two portions: the first pertains to how many votes they receive, and the second to how many seats they win. Seats attract significantly more funding than votes. Small parties who win few or no seats have no choice but to implement parity, whereas the larger parties will be more concerned with winning seats. If they feel that replacing a popular male incumbent with a lesser known female candidate might cost them the seat, they will consider it more costly to implement parity than to suffer the financial penalty for failing to do so. …