Sad Summer For Women In Politics – Part 1

Cécile Duflot. Photo:

Sometimes, the law reveals some strange anachronisms. There is still a law in France, from 1799, which forbids women to wear trousers. Of course, it is not applied by anyone anywhere in the country, but the legislator has never felt the necessity to repeal it. However, in 2012, a female minister, Cecile Duflot, was heavily criticized by the opposition for wearing jeans in the official government picture. Weeks later, in the middle of the summer, the same minister was booed in the National Assembly because she was wearing a summer dress.

There are many reasons for the deputies’ behavior. As a member and former leader of the Green Party, Duflot always defended a modern vision of politics where democratic transparency and bottom-up participation are more important than tradition and conventional clothing. However, some politicians, mostly conservative politicians, do not agree with this vision and are often shocked by this conception of politics.

Yet, this explanation is not sufficient. Five years ago, then-Justice minister Rachida Dati was also heavily criticized for appearing in haute-couture suits. That time it was the Socialist Party – usually known for being more progressive than the UMP – which mocked the attire of a female minister. This reveals that those reactions are not only a defense of traditionalism in politics but also an expression of an entrenched machismo within the French political sphere.

As Duflot explained in a conference at Sciences Po Lille in 2011, as a woman and a mother of four, she had to fight throughout her political career to preserve her femininity in a sphere where such values as male camaraderie or paternalistic authority are dominant. Former UMP minister Michèle Alliot-Marie acknowledged that she too needed to adopt these values in order to achieve a successful political career. Still today, the percentage of woman in the National Assembly is only 26.9%, though it has risen in this last election from the 18.5 % in 2007.

The number of women in national politics has been constantly rising since the Socialist majority in Parliament adopted in 2000 a law which requires political parties to present almost the same number of male and female candidates. Although most major parties respected the law during the last legislative election, the UMP chose to pay a 4-million-euro fine to present less than 30 % female candidates.

The inequality between genders in the French political sphere is more evident in the Presidential election. This year, the only female candidate to win over 5 % was Marine Le Pen from the Front National. Interestingly, she also defended the most conservative platform on women’s rights, as she wanted to ban what she called ‘comfort abortions’ – meaning abortions when there is not medical condition related to the fetus. Five years ago, Ségolène Royal of the Socialist Party was the first woman to make it to the second round of the election. However, like Duflot, she was attacked on her modern clothing, and her partner at the time, François Hollande, now the President of the Republic, was mockingly called “The First Lady”.

This male dominance in politics has been seen in the past as a result of the country’s Latin tradition. Contrary to this logic, the success of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Spanish Government, which put women in high-responsibility offices, showing that France is one more time late to the party regarding women’s rights. It is not the first time; the country was already behind when it came to giving women the right to vote. French women voted for the time in 1945, fifty-two years after their New Zealand counterparts, twenty-seven years after the British suffragettes and twenty-five years after the Americans. The only female Prime Minister, Edith Cresson, is still considered to have been a joke in the country – she only stayed eleven months in Matignon as she faced a difficult conjuncture and had problematic relations with the media – and it is likely there will be no female President before 2022 at the very least.

Many strides have been made but French women have a long way to go in the world of politics.

This article is part of an Opinion series on the state of Women rights. The second part of the article will be published next Wednesday.

What’s your take on this? Please, feel free to comment or question. Our columnist will try to answer as often as possible.


  1. […] article is part of an Opinion series on the state of Women rights. The first part dealt with the machismo of the French political […]

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