See also: demographic developments; women and social policy
women and politics
Since French women won the right to vote and to stand for election (in October 1944), their participation in politics has evolved considerably. If a principal indicator of political participation is voting, then in the 1990s French women participate at the same rate as men. However, as far as participation in political decision-making is concerned, little has changed since 1944.
Traditionally, women voters have been associated with abstentionism and conservatism. Until 1969, female abstention rates were 7-12 percentage points higher than male abstention rates. Women's participation was also distinct from that of men in that they voted, in greater numbers, for the Right. For instance, this gender gap was at its greatest in the first round of the presidential elections of 1965, when the Left's candidate, François Mitterrand, obtained 39 per cent of the women's vote compared with 51 per cent of the men's vote. The explanations for these early differences between male and female voting are that women were political beginners and were apprehensive about exercising their newly won rights and that they were more easily influenced in their choice of conservative candidates by the Catholic church.
This traditional model of the female voter began to fragment in the 1970s as, progressively, more women left the private sphere of home and family to enter the workforce or higher education, and the gap between male and female participation decreased. By the legislative elections of 1993 the difference in abstention rates was negligible, with 24 per cent of women abstaining compared with 23 per cent of men. The early 1970s also marked the radicalization of the female electorate. By the 1986 legislative elections, women and men voted equally for the Left, while by the second round of the 1988 presidential elections, women had overtaken men, for the first time, in voting for the Left.
While women accounted for 53 per cent of the electorate and nearly 45 per cent of the workforce in 1994, they only represented 6 per cent of députés and 5.5 per cent of sénateurs in parliament, placing France near the bottom of the league of European Union countries. Women's exclusion from political power has been put down to historical precedents such as property-based suffrage which (from 1789) prevented women from voting and representing others, to Catholicism's view of women's role and responsibilities, to the refusal of political parties to promote women and to the rules of the electoral system itself.
Since 1994, the fiftieth anniversary of women's political rights, a feminist campaign for political 'parity' (the equal representation of women and men in all elected assemblies) has gathered momentum. The argument that parity is the only way to renew French democracy has gained favour in a large section of the political class.
See also: Catholicism and Protestantism; feminism (movements/groups); parties and movements; women and employment