France set to enter world top ten for parliamentary gender balance

Former President François Hollande pictured with the female members of Jean-Marc Ayrault's first government. Hollande was the first president to impose gender parity in government.

Currently 63rd in the global ranking, France could rise to second place in Europe for gender balance in parliament after the second round of the legislative election this Sunday (18 June). The first-round collapse of the traditional parties has cleared unprecedented space for female candidates. EURACTIV France reports.

French voters will head to the ballot box for the fourth time in six weeks this Sunday. With most of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament, still up for grabs in the second-round vote, one thing is for certain: this will not be a parliament full of old white men.

Often lagging behind on questions of gender equality, France’s political scene was turned on its head in last Sunday’s (11 June) first-round vote, as 246 women made it through to this weekend’s second round run-offs. Enough to catapult France into the world top ten for gender balance.

The Scandinavian countries currently lead Europe on gender parity, with an average of 41.7% female MPs. The global average is 23%.

With 149 women in its outgoing 577-seat parliament, France stood at 25%. This placed it on level terms with Algeria and Honduras, and far behind Germany (38%), Belgium (37%) and the Netherlands (36%).

But if the polls are right, the new French parliament could be made up of 42% women. This would see France leapfrog its European partners to take second place on the continent, behind Sweden.

The En Marche effect

This sea change is largely thanks to the failure of the traditional parties and the strict gender parity rules for candidates standing for President Emmanuel Macron’s party La République En Marche. None of the traditional parties have rules on gender parity.

“The fact that the En Marche movement is new certainly helped: they did not have problem of MPs putting pressure on their parties to stay on no matter what. This is a very problematic phenomenon for women in politics,” said Reine Lépinay, the co-president of Elles Aussi, an association that campaigns for gender parity in political institutions.

In the Haut-Rhin department the centre-right Republican Party did not field a single female candidate but stuck to its list of incumbent males. Outgoing Republican MP Arlette Grosskost put her finger on the problem: “The party lists are drawn up by these men.”

When women are selected at all, the traditional parties’ male-dominated selection committees often place them in constituencies they have no chance of winning, handing the safe seats to their male colleagues.

France’s regulation on gender parity in electoral lists may have had some bearing on the current feminine surge.

This regulation was strengthened by an article in the 2017 equality law, which doubled financial penalties for non-compliance. Parties fielding unbalanced lists can have their public funding slashed.

And there is serious money at stake: every year the Republicans lose some €5m and the Socialists €1m due to their lack of gender balance.

“For new parties, which by definition don’t have any money, enduring a financial cost for lack of parity is simply not an option,” said Lépinay.

Calming the machos

Gender balance is good but it is not enough, warned Caroline de Haas, a militant feminist Green candidate. While she welcomes the arrival of more women in parliament as “very important”, de Haas is worried that these new MPs may be more likely to back the proposed new labour law, which would reduce the chances of women finding work, or other new laws on the prevention of terrorism, which may also have negative consequences for the rights of women.

“We must remember that the question of equality is not limited to parity. If half the parliament was occupied by women from the National Front, there would be no gains for gender equality,” she said.

Macron’s probable crushing majority could pose a threat to opposition forces in both parliament and the media. On Tuesday (13 June) a group of around 20 journalists’ societies expressed their concern.

But Lépinay has high hopes for a healthier atmosphere in the new parliament. “It will calm the machos. Because there are more women but also more young people,” she said.

The last parliament was tarnished by numerous sexist incidents, some of which led to sanctions and the suspension of MPs. Green MP and former Housing Minister Cécile Duflot was wolf-whistled on arriving in the hemicycle wearing a dress. Denis Baupin, also a Green, was prosecuted for sexual harassment.

While the future looks bright for gender parity in France’s lower house, the Senate still has a long way to go. Two-thirds of seats in the 77% male-dominated upper house will be contested in elections later this year.