France has not been kind to its women in public life. Napoleon nixed the idea of public education for women because "they are never called on to live in public." Former President Charles de Gaulle scoffed at the idea of women government ministers, "... of what, knitting?"
And then there's the French language. No term exists for a woman member of Parliament. It's madame le dput - a masculine noun - unless a woman deputy insists on the extra "e" to make the word feminine: dpute. But with a record 63 women elected to Parliament last Sunday - and 1 in 3 Cabinet positions going to women - this one-sided language policy could be about to change, along with a long history of limiting women's participation in French politics.
"We've had to put this question to the highest authorities, because with all these new women, it is beginning to be asked," says a National Assembly spokesman.
New Socialist Deputy Marisol Touraine says: "I'm going to insist on that extra 'e.' "
Until the June 1 vote, France ranked dead last in Europe in its representation of women in Parliament, with only 5.5 percent women deputies. "Since 1946, the lack of representation of women has been strong and lasting," concluded a recent French government report.
Of the 63 women the French people elected to their National Assembly, only 57 will serve. The other six have been asked to join new Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's government. Mr. Jospin named a total of eight women to his government, including three in top positions.
Included in these top appointments is the No.2 position in France's new government, second only to the prime minister. Martine Aubry will hold this post as the labor minister.
Following Britain's lead
British Prime Minister Tony Blair also infused Labour Party ranks with women, which doubled the representation of women in Parliament after the May 1 vote.
For Labourites, the decision to assign quotas for women candidates was a simple electoral calculation: Tories had cornered the lion's share of women's votes, and if Labour was to avoid a fourth consecutive defeat, it would need to win them back.
Of the 119 women elected to Parliament last month, 101 are members of the Labour Party.
But for Socialist leader Jospin, the decision to run nearly 30 percent women as candidates was a tougher call, with fewer guarantees of success.
Some analysts predicted that it could have lost Socialists the election, because the new women candidates would not attract votes as would more experienced male candidates.
"I was afraid that the idea of presenting women could come back as a boomerang, but the results show that voters were as willing to accept a woman candidate as a man," says Sylvie Guillaume, who directs women's issues for the French Socialist Party.
Weekend polls confirm public support for women. Some 88 percent of those surveyed said they wanted to see at least a third of ministerial seats go to women, according to a poll by the Paris-based CSA institute.
"We saw throughout this campaign that the theme of renewal played extremely well, and that women candidates amplified that image," adds Ms. Guillaume.
French politics has been marked by a series of high profile corruption scandals, especially in the ranks of the Socialist Party. As party leader, Jospin has tried to make a clean break with past corrupt practices.
In an address to party activists last September, Jospin insisted that it was time for Socialists to "set an example" for France by a dramatic increase in the representation of women.
A surge in women candidates would signal that the party was renewing itself and open to the concerns of all the French people, he said.
The move was controversial. "It's a lot easier for a man to give up his seat on a bus than his seat in the National Assembly," quipped Laurent Fabius, former Socialist prime minister, during the September conference.
Conservatives also considered expanding women in their ranks, but eventually rejected the idea. Instead, male candidates were urged to choose women as their backups. With an 80 percent majority in the National Assembly, conservative incumbents had more to lose than their opposition counterparts.
In March, then-Prime Minister and Rally for the Republic leader Alain Jupp told women in RPR ranks to "wait about 10 years" before seeking national office, to give themselves time to "apprentice at the local level."
In the end, the RPR and its conservative coalition partner the Union for French Democracy (UDF) presented 46 female candidates out of 577, six of whom were elected.
Conservative critics now say that was a mistake. "Women must feel as if they belong in parties that are more open and more receptive to their interests. In short, the RPR and UDF must stop behaving like soccer teams," argued Christine Clerk in the conservative daily Le Figaro.
"It's women that could give new life to an army in retreat," she adds.