Liberté, egalité, fraternité – but less so for women

Most French women still find themselves less than equal in politics and the corporate world.

When Catherine Bailhache was running for a regional council seat in the Atlantic coast area of Brittany earlier this month, she asked for help from the party bosses. But the men – and the kingpins of her center-right party were men – suddenly had other things to do.

She blames the macho streak in French politics.

"There's a certain political culture that believes women should not get involved in politics because they have to take care of their homes and families," says Ms. Bailhache.

The national symbol of France is the bare-breasted warrior-mother, Marianne, who is said to represent liberty, reason, and homeland.

But, despite Ségolène Royal's recent nomination as the country's first female major-party presidential candidate, most real-life French women still find themselves on the sidelines of the political battlefield and less than equal in the corporate world.

A new study by the World Economic Forum, released last month, ranked France in 70th place in terms of parity between men and women in public and economic life, out of a field of 115 countries representing 90 percent of the world's population.

France was beaten by, among others, China, Peru, Russia, Poland, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. The ranking of the United States was 22, Canada was 14th, and the United Kingdom was ninth best in overall success in closing the gender gap.

The Forum, a nonprofit organization based in Switzerland, is best known for its annual gatherings of world political and business leaders. Its rankings were based on comparisons of men's and women's salaries, their presence in high-level jobs, access to higher education, representation in political decisionmaking, and life expectancy.

The report's authors said it is "a snapshot of where men and women stand" on fundamental rights, and measures how close countries have come to closing the gender gap.

On average, most of the surveyed countries have nearly closed the gap in education and health and have made progress in the leveling the economic playing field, said Saadia Zahidi, an economist and director of the Forum's women leadership program. The biggest disparities, she said, were in political life empowerment.

The study's conclusions about France tallied with French research.

Women represent 46 percent of the working population but only one-quarter of the managerial jobs in the private sector, according to the national antidiscrimination agency.

Their salaries, on average, are 21 percent lower than the salaries of men in comparable jobs. Also, only 12 percent of the deputies in the National Assembly – and only 17 percent in the Senate – are women.

Many reasons have been offered for the dearth of women in elective office. Some commentators have said it has to do with the fact that the French were ruled by a queen only a handful of times in their history. The newspaper, Le Monde, said it is because women were excluded so long from "citizenship" and only got the right to vote in 1944.

Others point to the French feminist movement that flourished in the 1970s and focused more on social legislation, such as the right to free contraception and legal abortions, than on breaking into male-dominated political party cliques.

Even now, some French feminists bridle at the notion that French women need to fight for their place in a male-dominated political world.

Clara Dupont-Monod, a writer and activist, for example, has criticized Ms. Royal's description of her candidacy as a revolution.

"You make your gender an electoral argument," she wrote last week in the magazine Marianne. "I distrust that because it raises the argument of a battle of the sexes ... and the idea was to make a revolution with men, not against them."

Other French women, however, credit Royal with taking a new tack by making an end-run around the hidebound party establishment and appealing directly to party members to win the Socialist primary last month.

"She defeated those boys and it was extraordinary, because the Socialist Party, like all parties, is very male," says Odile Hellier, the French owner of the Village Voice bookstore in Paris. "But it was painful for them to accept that she was chosen by popular demand."

Some analysts have suggested that Royal's presidential run could have the spin-off effect of political parties nominating more women for next year's parliamentary elections.

A 2000 law only encourages the parties to put forward as many women as men for national office, although it requires them to do so for nominations for the European Parliament and city and regional elections.

The parity law has increased women's representation on local bodies in France. But once elected, they are often relegated to the sidelines again.

"The law is being applied and often there is the same number of women as men on the town councils," said Ms. Bailhache, who lost her bid for a seat on the regional council but has kept her city council seat in Guerande. "But the deputy mayors are all men. Those jobs are appointed by the mayors and almost all of them are still men."

Gender Gap Report 2006

Overall ranking and score (1=equality):


1. Sweden .8133


2. Norway .7994


3. Finland .7958


4. Iceland .7813


5. Germany .7524


6. Philippines .7516


7. New Zealand .7509


8. Denmark .7462


9. United Kingdom .7365


10. Ireland .7335


14. Canada .7165


22. United States .7042


46. Romania .6797


63. China .6560


70. France .6520


98. India .6010


115. Yemen .4762

Source: World Economic Forum

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