‘Macho’ France Dismays Women Seeking Égalité in Election

Former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson this month called France a “macho country,” where men and women aren’t equal. With 45 days before the presidential election, candidates are doing little to dispel that notion.

Although French women account for 53 percent of the electorate, there are few concrete proposals from the candidates to improve their lot. Europe’s debt crisis is putting the “égalité” part of the French motto “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” on the backburner, with the frontrunners lacking the economic will to pledge gender equality.

“Most candidates are avoiding promises to improve equality for women,” said Magali de Haas, a spokeswoman for Osez le Feminisme, a women’s rights group. “More gender equality means investing in the future: more child care, education for children, a fairer pension system. Candidates are balking because it means greater spending during the crisis.”

The 2011 World Economic Forum gender-gap report shows Europe’s second-largest economy ranked 48th out of 135 nations, lagging behind Spain, Germany and the U.K. In 2009, women earned 23 percent less than men in similar white-collar jobs, national statistics office Insee said. Women had 19 percent of the seats in parliament in France, compared with Andorra’s 50 percent and 36 percent in Spain, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

“We are scandalously behind,” said Elisabeth Guigou, a Socialist lawmaker and former justice minister.

The Candidates’ Stance

Gender equality was drawn into the heart of France’s presidential campaign yesterday as 45 women’s associations from across the country gathered in Paris, inviting all candidates to sign an ”Equality 2012” pact on equal wages, access to full-time jobs and less sexism.

Lawmakers, feminist groups and former ministers are calling for women’s causes to be ”put on the agenda” after the lack of new measures from President Nicolas Sarkozy.

A large proportion of women voters remain undecided, a survey this week showed. With the first round of the election scheduled for April 22, only 46 percent of registered women say they’ve decided for whom they’ll vote, compared with 68 percent for men, according to pollster Harris Interactive.

“I would, of course, like a government with 50 percent women and 50 percent men,” frontrunner Francois Hollande, a socialist, said in an e-mailed response to questions. Still, at a conference last week, he made no commitments, saying it “would be a good principle to have.” He added that parity didn’t “mean that they will have the same responsibilities.”

A Struggle

The comment drew the wrath of feminists.

“This is outrageous!” said Marie-Jo Zimmermann, a lawmaker from Sarkozy’s party. “What does it mean: junior jobs for women and voila?”

The ruling party lawmaker’s criticism also extends to Sarkozy. Zimmermann lobbied for two laws -- one passed last year and the other last month -- that impose a minimum of 40 percent of women on boards and in top administration jobs by 2017 for private companies and the state.

“I struggled to get these laws passed,” Zimmermann said. “I didn’t get much help” from the president’s office, she said. Since the law was passed, the number of women on the boards of companies listed on France’s benchmark CAC 40 index has risen to 20.8 percent in 2011 from 15.3 percent in 2010 and 10.5 percent in 2009, Agence France-Presse reported.

While Sarkozy has made few commitments in his campaign to narrow the gender gap, women have key roles on his team, including Emmanuelle Mignon, Carine Trividic and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, his spokeswoman. Hollande, on the other hand, has only men among top advisers.

DSK Case

Last year’s arrest in New York of former International Monetary Fund chief and a one-time potential leading presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of attempted rape prompted some soul-searching in France on politicians’ attitudes toward women. Charges against DSK, as he is known in France, were dropped. Still, it revealed “backward ways that still exist in France,” said De Haas.

While the case emboldened women to speak out against men in power, it has yet to make them a voting block to reckon with.

Hollande and Sarkozy both acknowledged this week that they need to do more to empower women, narrowing France’s wage gap and seeking parity in government and parliament. They aren’t committing to number targets. Hollande said he would enforce existing gender-parity legislation, including a 2001 law on professional equality. He promised to create a women’s rights ministry to oversee the enforcement.

“We don’t need more laws, we have everything we need,” Hollande said. “What we need is to abide by them.”

Equality Theme

He pledged to cancel state subsidies to political parties that don’t respect parity, going further than the fines imposed today. He also said companies failing to comply with wage-equality laws within a year will lose tax credits.

“Gender issues don’t move lines in a vote in France,” Jean-Daniel Levy, head of the opinion section of Harris Interactive, said in an interview. “But it will help Hollande anchor his campaign theme, equality.”

Zimmermann said Sarkozy’s hasn’t done enough to fulfill his 2007 campaign promise to women.

Only 29 percent of his government’s posts are held by women, much less than the 50-50 parity he had promised five years ago. His party will only have 28 percent of women running in the June legislative elections to elect the 577 members of the lower house of parliament, while the Socialist Party has 46.5 percent of women running, Zimmermann said.

Controlled by Men

“The problem is that even with parity among candidates going into elections, the best ridings often go to men,” said Socialist lawmaker Guigou. “There have to be ways to make parties give women opportunities in places where they can get elected. Voters are not the problem, the parties put up the barriers because they are controlled by men.”

Cresson, the only woman prime minister France has had -- holding the post in 1991 and 1992 -- concurs.

“Voters are open to women and in some cases view them as more trustworthy,” she said in an interview in Paris this month. “It’s the party apparatus that puts up the barriers.”

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