Report: FRANCE

Gender parity in French politics faces test after departmental elections

Last weekend’s departmental elections marked a turning point in gender parity in France. The new councils are now perfectly equal between men and women, following a change in the law. On Thursday the newly elected departmental councils were set to elect their executive councils and presidents - a test of how equal the departments really are.

Members of the right-wing UMP celebrate gains by their party in last weekend's departmental elections
Members of the right-wing UMP celebrate gains by their party in last weekend's departmental elections AFP/Eric Feferberg

Emmanuel Ajon is a newly elected councilor for the Gironde department.

She was elected to Bordeaux city council seven years ago. Without the new parity law, she says she would probably not have run for a seat on the departmental council.

“The position would have been taken by a man!” she says with a laugh.

Women's rights in France - given or taken?

A law introduced in France in 2000 imposed parity in list-based elections: every other person on the list has to be female.

But this does not work in direct elections, like the departmental or the parliamentary polls, where there is only one candidate per district. Historically, those candidates have been male.

Women made up less than a third of candidates in the 2011 departmental elections and only 14 per cent of those elected.

To address this a 2013 law imposes two candidates for each departmental district, a man and a woman. That means of the 4,108 departmental councillors 2,065 are automatically women.

So many more women means having to find more to run in the first place, not an easy task, says Joëlle Cottenye, who was reelected as a councilor in the Nord department, where there were previously 13 women out 69.

“The difficulty is the motivation,” she told RFI. A man will say yes right away, “a woman will say ‘I don’t have the time, I can’t organise myself’”.

Cottenye has been in local politics for 20 years, and she knows the challenges facing women in politics. They already have to juggle family and professional responsibilities. Adding politics to the mix is daunting.

Julia Mouzon, the founder of Femmes & Pouvoir, a network of women in French politics, tries to encourage women not to hold back.

“There is a social conditioning in women that you’re not a leader,” she told RFI, adding that strong women are considered “bossy”.

“We have very few women leaders. So you’re not really inspired by society to leave your children at home and run for the presidency of a departmental council.”

Patricia Suppi hesitated to run in the Villenuve-sur-Lot department. A 41-year-old librarian with two children, this is her first foray into politics.

When she was asked to join Guillaume Lepers as his duo, she took a while to say yes.

“I felt competent,” she told RFI. Her partner has been involved in local politics and she worked on his campaign. But she was concerned about the implications of running for office herself: the impact on her personal life and exposing herself to public scrutiny.

She did decide to run. And she won. Now that she has a seat on the council, she admits she has a lot to learn.

Only a third of the new councillors are incumbents and sociologist Laure Bereni says the newcomers, most of them women, will have a challenge.

“Of course they are weaker when they come to the job,” she told RFI. “But I’m sure they will learn a lot and empowered by this new system.”

She cautions against those who say that women bring something different to politics to men. Several candidates talked about being more open to voters and having a more conciliatory approach to politics.

But Bereni says the different approach could be attributed to something other than gender.

“It’s partly because they are women and they have been long excluded from the political scene, so they are mechanically closer to everyday people than then men,” she says. But mostly, “they are amateur”.

Women will bring new approaches, not because they are women but because they are newcomers, an argument that is echoed by Julia Mouzon of Femmes & Pouvoir.

“I don’t think women are better at politics than men,” she says. “I think they are better because they are outsiders.”

The impact of these newcomers will be measured in the coming months as the departmental councils get to work.

A first test of true parity was due on Thursday when the councils elect their executive committees and presidents. The parity law applies to the committees, which half of whose members will have to bewomen.

“If that's not the case, then someone will have to explain,” insists Mouzon. “It’s not going to be like before, where they can say there are no women. That’s just not going to work any more, because women are there.”

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