French try woman as president – but first on a sitcom

The president of France has problems: plummeting approval ratings, few political allies, an outbreak of pimples before an important speech, and now this. She's barely past her first 100 days in office and she's pregnant.

Catastrophe!

Such are the trials and tribulations of the first female French president, at least as portrayed in a new series that premièred this week on state television. Less "Commander in Chief" than a fluffy comedy of manners, the show follows "Madame la Présidente" as she fights for world peace, social justice, and the right to be addressed by her title and not her first name.

It is fiction, of course. But many people could not help but read it as a sly commentary on the current French political scene, where a real-life woman, Ségolène Royal, has a good shot at becoming the Socialist Party candidate in next spring's presidential elections.

Ms. Royal is widely seen as battling a sexist political establishment in order to prove herself as presidential material.

The producers of the television show say they did not have Royal in mind when they came up with the character of Grace Bellanger, the name of the pioneering woman president in their series "État de Grâce," or State of Grace.

Still Jean-Luc Gaget, who wrote the script, said he made a point of consulting with a number of women in French politics in order to make the show credible. As he told Le Figaro newspaper recently, the women all spoke of the harsh "macho" atmosphere inside the main parties and the patronizing attitude of many French political journalists.

In the show, the fictional Grace, played by the impossibly thin actress Anne Consigny, is a 41-year-old environmental activist and political independent who is elected president.

Her world is also one of patronizing men, chauvinistic journalists who question her ability to govern while pregnant, manipulative image-makers and, naturally, the loneliness of being at the top.

But there is no mistaking Grace for more familiar and non-French leaders. She is, in short, no Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, or Hillary Clinton.

The man in Grace's life is a rumpled golf instructor who wanders amid the glittering chandeliers and gilded furniture of the Elysée Palace in pajamas. The president's other confidants are a basset hound named Artois and the motherly maid who serves her tea each afternoon.

Much is made of Grace's struggle to act strong yet also feminine and juggle her seemingly competing impulses to save the world, reform France, and keep her man from feeling neglected.

She also wants respect. When the visiting Russian president murmurs, "You look good enough to eat," Grace throws him a cutting look.

Her first big crisis is the discovery of her unexpected pregnancy. She agrees with her advisers to keep it a secret. "It will be the first lie of my presidency," she moans. But she is betrayed after a CIA operative finds her used pregnancy test kit in the Elysée garbage (zut, those Americans!), and in the end, she announces it happily on national TV.

Another four episodes are yet to come. But a synopsis of the plot reveals that Grace will be ordered to spend her pregnancy, and so run the country, in bed. As she goes into labor, a French island comes under attack from a third world madman. She orders an epidural and then orders the French Navy to counterattack. France is victorious and the first female French president delivers a boy.

Initial reviews of the series were positive, with some critics applauding the show for raising important issues concerning the treatment of women in positions of power. But there is little in Grace's character to remind viewers of real women in French politics, among them the tough leader of the Communist Party and the present defense minister.

But to some extent, there are parallels with Royal's experiences.

Royal, for example, is much more popular with the public, at least according to opinion polls, than she is with the professional politicians of her own party. And she has been held to a particular standard as a woman. She has been publicly scolded for wearing high heels on a visit to a slum in Chile. And a former Socialist prime minister, Laurent Fabius, joked last year that if Royal, the mother of four children, won high office, "Who will take care of the children?"

But Royal differs in important ways from the fictitious President Bellanger. Her partner is hardly a ne'er-do-well golfer but Francois Hollande, the head of the Socialist Party. Rather than torment herself over how voters may respond to her family life, she invited magazine and television cameras to photograph her after the birth of her last child.

If it accomplishes nothing else, however, the TV show has already has pundits wondering about the wisdom of portraying women as caricatures. "Will the media's image of the superwoman, immensely powerful or fantastically beautiful, truly lead to emancipation?" asks François-Xavier Ajavon in Le Monde. "Or will it lead to a collective wish to return to the reassuring maternal figures of the past?"

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