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January|February 2003
After the Revolution By Emily Bazelon
Liberté, Egalité, Sororité By Garance Franke-Ruta

Liberté, Egalité, Sororité

Despite a law designed to elect more women to the French government, male incumbents remain entrenched, and parité has been declared dead. What went wrong?

By Garance Franke-Ruta

Marine Le Pen sat plotting the future of the far-right National Front behind a massive, paper-stacked desk at the party's drab headquarters in a wealthy Parisian suburb. A 34-year-old attorney and the Front's likely future leader, she is the daughter of the aging, internationally excoriated Jean-Marie Le Pen. Her goal, she said, flipping back her long blonde ponytail, is to soften their party's "harsh image, which alas still terrifies a number of people." And she thinks a woman is just the person for that job. That's why she has thrust open the party's doors, greeting reporters with a warm smile and a stack of aggressively designed campaign literature that slams démocratie totalitaire, as the Front has dubbed the French political system, in blocky red-on-black print.

Marine is every inch her father's daughter, from her stout physique and the forceful way she moves to the southern French accent of her deep voice. She also shares her father's presidential ambitions, she admits, though she knows she ought to win a seat in the National Assembly (or some other elected body) before running for higher office. And, of course, she shares her father's disdain for France's immigration laws, which she thinks should be more like "the policies of the U.S." But in September we didn't meet to talk about these things. We met to talk about parité, or parity—first a controversial idea, then a movement, and now a law that mandates the equal representation of men and women on the candidate lists for French elections.

The nerve center of the far right may seem like an odd place to go to understand the most important French feminist debate of the last decade. But Marine Le Pen's first bid for a seat in the National Assembly last summer is all too representative of the fate of parité. She stood for election in Pas-de-Calais, a district north of Paris that seemed fairly promising for the National Front last spring. And like every other female candidate her party ran, she lost.

Parité was supposed to be "a second revolution," said Réjane Sénac-Slawinski, the petite 27-year-old wunderkind who is the general secretary for the Observatoire de la Parité, a division of the prime minister's office. But the outcome of the June 2002 elections, the first contests for the National Assembly after the law passed two years earlier, didn't unleash a flood of women from any party into the gilded halls of the Assembly's Palais Bourbon home. Parité had virtually no impact, increasing the proportion of women in the Assembly by only 1.4 percent.

In the debate that led up to the adoption of parité, feminists, professors, and government ministers squared off over the nature of French universalism, the republican tradition, and the political meaning of gender. But the legislators who drafted the law behaved much like politicians everywhere, loath to write themselves out of office. The penalties they imposed for ducking the requirements of parité amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist for the larger, well-financed political parties that dominate the Assembly.

Female politicians, judges, and scholars gave another, more fundamental reason for the law's minimal impact at the polls: le machisme, the deep-rooted sexism that has been inscribed into the institutions of government since before the French revolution and persists in daily life in discouraging ways. This mentalité has been challenged by parité. But it has yet to be overthrown.

The idea of reserving some number of candidacies for women has been kicking around French political circles since 1975, when Françoise Giroud, the first secretary of state for women's issues, proposed that women ought to get at least 15 percent of the slots in local election contests. The proposed quota had climbed to 25 percent by 1982, when a law seeking to change the local election rules sailed through the National Assembly. But the bill was rapidly ruled unconstitutional by the Conseil Constitutionnel, one of France's high courts. The French commitment to universalism, laid out in the country's 1958 constitution and in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, "is opposed to all divisions of voters and candidates into sections," the court said. That meant no gender quotas.

The 1992 book Au Pouvoir, Citoyennes! Liberté, Egalité, Parité relaunched the debate by deftly replacing quotas with the principle of parité, or equal power sharing. Written by the scholar and longtime Socialist politician Françoise Gaspard, the journalist Claude Servan-Schreiber, and the judge Anne Le Gall, the book asked if women ought to be ruled by men—and, if not, why they still were. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, France's centuries-old national motto, inscribed the universal democratic citizen as male. Yet women were more than half of the universal. "Parity between men and women constitutes the application of a principle and not the application of a percentage," the Women's Civic and Social Union explained.

At the European summit on women's rights in Athens that year, held to prepare for the formation of the European Union, the proportion of women in France's bicameral parliament—at under 6 percent, the lowest in Europe save for Greece—was held up as an international embarrassment. The next year, 289 female and 288 male intellectuals signed a manifesto in Le Monde calling for the adoption of a parity law in language lifted straight from Au Pouvoir, Citoyennes!

In response to the burgeoning debate, President Jacques Chirac in October 1995 created the Observatoire, which began monitoring the status of French women. A slew of books, editorials, petitions, and demonstrations followed, including another manifesto signed by ten female ministers and former ministers from the right and the left. Early opposition to parité by prominent feminists and female intellectuals, like the scholar Elisabeth Badinter, couldn't match the momentum building for a legal solution to France's electoral gender gap. Public opposition to parité soon became politically unwise for would-be members of government. In 1997, the Socialist Party adopted the idea as a campaign plank.

That year, the Socialists also voluntarily ran candidate lists that were one-third female. The number of women in the Assembly jumped from 6 percent to 10.9 percent, and the Socialists won control of the chamber. A year later, the philosopher Sylviane Agacinski, wife of the new Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, published Politique des Sexes. The book pointed out that the constitutional directive against giving sovereignty to any "section" of the people had been written by men before the advent of universal suffrage. Rather than dividing the people, parité would simply recognize that the citizenry was now roughly half female, a breakdown that gave women a claim to greater representation that minority groups couldn't necessarily make. Jospin pressed for change with renewed vigor, and, with 70 percent of the public polling in favor of parité, Chirac threw his support behind it as well.

In June 1999, a special joint session of the National Assembly and Senate, held at the Palace of Versailles, amended the Constitution, adding: "The law favors equal access for men and women to electoral mandates and elective offices." A year later, Jospin shepherded a parité bill through a bemused, but cowed, parliament. The legislation passed 573 to 3, with 1 abstention. Henceforth, political parties would have to run equal numbers of men and women for Assembly districts and for local elections. Cheating in national elections would be met with reduced campaign financing, and in local contests, male candidates would be blocked from running if they didn't campaign with an equal number of women at their sides.

As the 2002 elections approached, expectations were high for significant shifts in the balance of power between men and women. The overall number of candidates running for the 577 National Assembly seats jumped by one-third, to 8,600. Nearly 40 percent of the candidates were women. But when the votes were counted, the proportion of female seat holders had increased by only a fraction—from 10.9 to 12.3 percent. In the Senate contest held the previous year, 17 women had won in races for 102 seats. That left the body as a whole, which has 321 seats, 89.1 percent male.

Why the lackluster showing? Most of the women who ran for office for the first time last summer represented minor parties that had little chance of gaining seats. Les grandes familles politiques, the two major parties "engaged in real battles for the seats," either failed to put women forward or "often put up women candidates in districts they knew were lost to them," explained Sénac-Slawinski. Despite their 1997 advances and their supposed devotion to parité, the Socialists ran women in only 36 percent of the 2002 races. The UMP (Union for the Presidential Majority), Jacques Chirac's center-right coalition, ran less than 20 percent female candidates. If awards had been given for electoral strategy, Chirac's UMP would be the hands-down recipient of La palme du machisme for dominating the election while flagrantly violating the law, Sénac-Slawinski wrote in a September report.

Only six parties, all marginal, ran women in 45 to 50 percent of the National Assembly races: the Greens, the Worker's Struggle party, and the Revolutionary Communist League on the left; the Movement for France and the National Front on the right; and the Hunting, Fishing, Nature, and Tradition Party in its own idiosyncratic middle. The Green party, which ran 227 female candidates, won a grand total of three seats. The National Front ran 276 women and failed to win a single chair. Asked what impact her gender had on her loss, Le Pen could barely contain her guffaws. She didn't lose because she's a woman, she said. She lost because candidates from the National Front "have been accused of being fascists and Nazis." Women didn't cleave to the minor parties because they're attracted in greater numbers to politically marginal positions. On the contrary, polling data suggest that French women are generally more centrist than men, according to Sénac-Slawinski. That view wasn't much reflected in the candidate lists, though, because would-be mainstream female politicians encountered a deeply entrenched ancien régime of male incumbency.

Law or no law, veteran male politicians in the UMP and Socialist parties refused to cede to female newcomers. They jostled their female compatriots into unwinnable Assembly districts. The law required the political parties to alternate male and female candidates on electoral lists in selected Senate districts. In Senate elections, ballot positioning matters a great deal, so some men listed low on a party's official ballot because of the mandate to alternate male and female candidates formed their own lists to get themselves back on top. Because of a peculiarity of French election law, the multiple lists reduced the number of Senate seats in some districts. In the district of la Manche, the seat held by a liberal female incumbent was erased because of a rightist male dissident list.

Parité wasn't supposed to turn out like this. but the weak penalty provisions of the law profoundly undermined its spirit. French elections have been publicly funded since 1988. Parties get their financing in two stages: 1.55 Euros per vote earned in the first round of elections, and 45,000 Euros per winning candidate after the run-off contests, which are held if no candidate in a race wins an absolute majority in the first round. Since some small parties win no seats, the law's drafters couldn't fairly punish parité-flouters by withholding the second stage of financing given for winning. So they crafted penalties related to campaign funds for the first stage. The penalties were proportional to the size of the violation. Parties deviating from parité by only a few percentage points paid small fines, while larger parties were forced to forego larger amounts.

The scheme made sense in theory, but in practice it undercut parité's force. The small parties couldn't afford to lose their first-stage financing, and so took gender balancing seriously. The UMP and the Socialists, by contrast, knew that if they fielded winning incumbents or well-known male newcomers, they'd earn enough from the higher-stakes second stage of financing to neutralize the impact of earlier funding cuts.

In retrospect, the defection of the major parties seems predictable. "The principle objective of political parties is not to have women and men in equal numbers, but to win elections," noted Marie-Cécile Moreau, a magistrate who advises the Observatoire and whose lapel pins from the French National Order of Merit and the National Order of the Legion of Honor mark her standing in the country. To run enough new female candidates to get women into half the races, the UMP and the Socialists would have had to purge their ranks of up to 37 percent of their male candidates, many of whom were incumbents. The feminists know that the major parties would never have passed a law that enforced this requirement. But as long as there is wiggle room in the parité law, parties will take advantage of it. "The law is only effective," Sénac-Slawinski said, "when the parties have no choice."

Which explains why parité played out so differently in the municipal elections held in March 2001. In the local contests, the candidates are tethered to one another in a way that they aren't in the Assembly elections. They have to run in groups of six, rather than as individuals. And parité exerted more influence. Parties that failed to include three women on each list didn't have their funding cut—they didn't get to run the offending list at all. Faced with that threat, both major and minor parties fielded lists that were half women. In towns of more than 3,500 people, the representation of women on councils and in other local positions increased from 25.7 percent to 47.5 percent.

Surprisingly, the gains spilled over into little villages where the requirements of parité didn't apply. During the debate over the law, feminists focused partly on barriers involving pay and meeting times to explain why women found it difficult to stand for election, particularly at the town level. Municipal councils in France pay their members as little as $150 per month. To accommodate the day jobs of the part-time conseilleurs, meetings are often held in the evenings and on weekends, a difficult time for women with children. These impediments, however, didn't deter women from lining up to run for the town councils, where the proportion of female council members in small towns jumped from 21 percent in 1995 to 30 percent in 2001. Women now hold a third of the seats in France's 37,000 towns and cities.

Yet parité made no provisions for women's roles once they got on the councils, and leadership posts remain elusive. In the 2001 elections, the percentage of women mayors, who are selected from the councils by their members, squeaked up from 7.5 to just 10.9 percent. It's too soon to tell whether the influx of women onto municipal councils will eventually yield more female mayors. "The result so far is this vivier of women," said Sénac-Slawinski, using a term for a pond or restaurant tank where fish are bred and fattened. "What we have to study in the future is whether this hatchery of women, with their youthful experience of the city councils, will be able to rise in the political field."

In Paris last fall, the parité-produced gains of the 2001 local elections were long forgotten. Because of the widespread perception that the two major parties flouted parité with impunity in the national elections, the law, I was told loudly and often, is dead. Last June, Le Monde ran an editorial calling it ridiculous.

Parité was also discredited because of its association with the Socialists, who lost 106 seats in the Assembly last summer, as well as the prime ministership. Jospin resigned the post after a humiliating loss in the election's first round to Jean-Marie Le Pen. And despite the eventual rejection of Le Pen and his party at the polls—Chirac defeated him soundly and the National Front now holds no seats in either house of parliament—issues dear to the right currently dominate political conversation. Concerns about security and the cultural integration of immigrants, not whether a late-night city council session would prevent women officeholders from serving their kids dinner, were uppermost in the minds of the professors, financiers, and attorneys I spoke with.

In the wake of the "trauma," as Sénac-Slawinski called last spring's election, neither the feminists nor the center-right majority offered a proposal for making the parité law more effective. Instead, major players on both sides of the debate mostly fell silent. The advocate Agacinski spent months in virtual seclusion, resurfacing to publish a book about her husband's losing campaign that had nothing to do with gender politics. Opponents like Badinter didn't even bother to crow over their victory; perhaps they felt that nothing more needed to be said. After all, the most powerful woman in French government today—Michèle Alliot-Marie, the first female defense minister— firmly opposes parité, calling the law "an insult to women."

The speed with which France is ready to bury parité suggests that support for the law was wide but shallow. In many ways, the country wasn't an obvious place for a big move toward gender equity. French women didn't get the vote until 1944, when Charles de Gaulle, later the founder of the Fifth Republic, decided after the Nazis and Pétainists were driven out that women were his best source of support against the Communists. In 1981, when the left came into power, a married woman could not sell property she owned without her husband's permission. Marital rape wasn't made criminal until 1990. "The modus vivendi, the way of life in France, is machiste. The way of life is made by men and for men," said Moreau, the lawyer.

Laws against sexual harassment were long considered a symptom of American prudishness. When they were finally adopted ten years ago, their reach was limited to sexual coercion by superiors, in contrast to the protections against harassment by fellow employees in U.S. law. Crude on-the-job talk and sexual come-ons are still "considered a national sport," said Nicole Rosa, president of La Compagnie des Femmes, a business with a nonprofit arm that trains women to campaign and govern.

France lapses oddly from contemporary standards in ways that aren't apparent in other advanced Western countries. Turkish-style toilets, where you squat over a hole in the ground, can be found in new, purple-walled restaurants. Official buildings abound with flashes of female nudity that would make John Ashcroft blush. On the dais of the Hémicycle, the semicircular room that houses the Assembly's legislative chamber, two women carved in ivory represent the state, winged and bare-breasted, one trumpeting a long, thin horn, the other stamping the law into a tablet with her stylus. Other half-naked women, painted, sculpted, and gilded with gold, dot the halls. At the Hôtel de Matignon, the prime minister's residence built in 1725, the legs of a marble sideboard in the main conference room have gilded, jutting breasts, and no other human features.

Though France's patrimony relentlessly presents them with archaic stereotypes, women have excelled within the meritocracy since gaining entry to it. The legal profession is a good example. As in the United States, women have poured into law schools during the past 20 years, and nearly three-quarters of law students are now female. More than half the students are women at the école Nationale de la Magistrature in Bordeaux, which trains the country's judges. Women make up the majority of the practicing judges in Paris and 41 percent of lawyers nationwide.

Earning a law degree—or a judgeship—is a question of objective skill tested by an exam. The political system, however, is not a meritocracy in the same sense. Politicians rise by networking and meeting social expectations of excellence. So do corporate and financial executives, which may be why women run none of France's large financial institutions and hold fewer than 7 percent of the top jobs at the 5,000 largest companies. "It is easier for young women to go very far in their studies," Nicole Rosa of La Compagnie des Femmes said. "For politics, it's not like that. It's connections."

For now, those connections mostly run from man to man. Almost all French politicians come from the école Nationale d'Administration, a graduate program set up by de Gaulle to train promising young people for government service. Most of the students come from the relatively wealthy Parisian families who hold the reins of the country's famed, impenetrable social networks. "Men in politics have networks," said Rosa. "We have no women's networks."

Parité's supporters saw the law as their best shot at dismantling this ancien régime. But elections and 50 percent quotas, however appealingly recast, may be a bad fit. French women made their biggest gain in electoral politics when the Socialists decided on their own to run more female candidates. Similarly, Sweden, the world's leader in electoral gender equity with a parliament that's 42.7 percent female, didn't mandate an increase in women candidates. Instead, the numbers jumped because of widely available child care and parental leave and because the three major political parties tried on their own to promote women. Voluntary party quotas have also increased the number of women elected in Germany and South Africa.

There are countries in Latin America and Africa, like Argentina and Uganda, where reserving seats for women by law seems to be working. But given their divergent political traditions, it's difficult—or maybe impossible—to draw comparisons between these nations and a country like France. If a conclusion can be drawn internationally, it's probably that public sentiment really matters for electing more women to office. "If, in a particular country, a particular group has power and part of their power comes from a platform of gender equality, then one can expect to see more gender equality. But, if one is in a system in which 90 percent of the positions are held by men, it is naïve to think that the situation can be flipped within two years," noted Judith Resnik, a Yale law professor who has written about worldwide efforts to achieve gender equality. "Neither the vote alone nor any other single measure can bring about change without a fabric of policies and practices that support it."

In the United States, no quotas of any sort have been seriously considered. Still, the number of women in Congress has climbed from 6 percent to 14 percent over the past 11 years. The increase is largely the work of EMILY's List, a political action committee that funds pro-choice Democratic women. Republican women created their own PAC, the WISH List, in 1992. As in France and other European nations, though, the electoral gains have depended in part on the national political mood. In November, when Democrats failed to gain seats across the country, the number of women in the House and Senate remained static for the first time in a decade.

The pediatrician Edwige Antier-Regard exemplifies both the gains and the limitations of parité. She is the UMP first assistant to the Paris mayor of the Eighth Arrondissement—a sort of deputy mayor, in other words—and a newly elected member of the Paris city council. The first thing she wants me to know is that she didn't need a law to get either post. She's the author of more than a dozen popular books on maternal and child health, host of a talk radio show, mother of two children she raised on her own, and a Knight in the National Order of the Legion of Honor. In her youth, she lived in the French territory of New Caledonia, an island in the South Pacific, where she was the first woman elected to the territorial assembly and then served as vice-president of the assembly. "It was on my own," she said, settling into a settee in the spacious living room of her apartment near the Arc de Triomphe. "There was not a law for parité."

Like some successful African-Americans who find their achievements attributed to affirmative action rather than hard work, Antier-Regard worries that parité diminishes the respect due her. "I was so famous that they asked me to come back into politics in Paris," she said emphatically. "They did not only ask me because of parité." At 60, Antier-Regard is older than many of the women on city councils, though she looks younger than she is, with her stylish blonde hair and Provençal orange and peach sweater-jacket ensemble. In 2004, she hopes to run for the regional council for Paris and its environs, the rough equivalent of a statehouse. She is building her power base: In October, she became vice-president of the UMP's Paris chapter.

The challenge, Antier-Regard said, is to combat machisme by engaging the political system, even though it's not very welcoming. She admits to finding it difficult to stake out territory that's traditionally considered masculine, like helping to lead budget discussions on the 163-member Paris council. And she's noticed that male politicians tend to disappear from chambers when the conversation turns to the elderly or to children. "So it's not a very real parité," she said, because the goal of equal numbers doesn't necessarily translate into equal roles. "We have a lot of work to do." She and her husband of eight years have had trouble figuring out his place in her political life. "It is normal that a woman is the assistant of her husband but not the reverse," she said as her husband, Robert Regard, went back and forth with cups of fresh espresso from the kitchen.

At the same time, Antier-Regard expressed a fondness for traditional femininity the likes of which I hadn't heard since the attacks on Hillary Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign. "What was a great thing was when President Chirac chose a woman as ministre de la défense," she said. "But now she looks like a man.... She cut her hair, she wears men's suits, she walks very strictly."

The deputy member got up and began to mimic Alliot-Marie's masculine stride, pantomiming the cut of her new, broad-shouldered suits. It was an off-guard moment, but it revealed the hold that traditional thinking about women's roles continues to exert. The mentalité persists, even among the women who hope to banish it.

Garance Franke-Ruta is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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