Gender Parity in French Politics

By Henry, Natacha | Contemporary Review, August 1994 | Go to article overview

Gender Parity in French Politics

Henry, Natacha, Contemporary Review

On April 21st, 1944, General de Gaulle and his provisional government passed a decree giving women the right to vote.(1) It certainly wasn't the outcome of a recent debate. Since 1789 French `suffragettes' had put pressure on successive governments to make suffrage truly universal.(2) Some like Olympe de Gouges gave their lives to such a cause. In September 1791 she published the Droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne as an answer to the Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen. She believed men and women should have equal opportunities and equal political representation. She stressed the fact that the French Revolution had forgotten to bring women into the new democracy.(3) She was beheaded. The excuse prevailed that women could be represented by men. Or did the law makers understand, like their followers two hundred years later, that their domination could be threatened if women were able to speak out? In 1801 the writer Sylvain Marechal even suggested women should be forbidden to learn to read.

For the younger generations, the right to vote is something they take for granted. It suits the politicians. Celebrations in April for the fiftieth anniversary of women's right to vote were practically non-existent. The Balladur government, even though of Gaullist descent avoided making too strong a point. Did they miss a good political move there?

President Mitterrand suggested that the Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie should be the first woman to rest in the Pantheon with the most illustrious French heroes. But there were no street demonstrations or concerts, no major declarations. Although the French are always keen on spending millions on anniversaries and getting flags and fireworks out of the cupboards (14th of July, 100th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower, D Day . . .) they avoided paying a tribute to what was de Gaulle's decision as well as to the acknowledgement that women and men are equal. Next year on the 29th of April will be the anniversary of the first time women actually voted. A month before the presidential elections, will the candidates be advised to seize the opportunity of winning women's votes? Or are we women too unpredictable?

There is little doubt that all the candidates will be male. Since electoral equality was obtained in 1944 enabling women to stand for elections, another issue has emerged. In the Assemblee Nationale, for instance, 94 per cent of the MPs (depute) are men (546 out of 577). In 1946, 95 per cent of the MPs were men. There are practically no women in the national representative bodies. Why aren't women more present in political institutions? Is it due to men, women themselves, or the whole system? Women are not victims. Fortunately the old and strong negative concept is being replaced by that of survivors. But do you survive by keeping out of the political scene? Or do you try to enter the fight? Will they let you?

This is how the concept of gender parity in politics was born.(4) So that men and women together would co-manage the political sphere.

The idea still prevails that women should stick to the private sphere while the public sphere should remain a man's world. In the 1960s and 1970s feminists thought society would change if men got more involved in the private realm of home and children.

Although to some extent they did, time has shown that it has to work both ways. The road is long. Common belief implies that women are not competent enough to have a positive impact on state affairs.(5) Power is not something they were made for. A lot of women won't question this. They even tend to agree. They are sometimes the least `feminist' of all. However, there are women who have taken up arms in the political sphere, alongside with some, a few, of their male colleagues.

In 1977 when the Green Party (les Verts) presented for the first time an egalitarian list of candidates, there was little about it in the press. Parity is now in their statutes. …

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