Saturday, 28 January 2012

Hollande’s three measures to help women in French politics

On Thursday 26 January, François Hollande unveiled his 60 manifesto pledges for the French presidency.  Of particular interest to those concerned with women’s representation is pledge #48.  In a single pledge, he makes no fewer than three promises which have direct significance for women’s representation.  He offers to strengthen the ‘parity’ law (a somewhat ineffective law obliging parties to field 50% women candidates), to introduce a proportional element to parliamentary elections, and to clamp down on multiple office-holding.  All of these promises are potentially beneficial for women.

He promises to reinforce the ‘parity’ law by increasing the financial penalties for non-compliance.  This is encouraging, although insufficient.  In its current formulation, the law does not work very well, for two reasons.  First, the penalties for non-implementation are more constraining for smaller parties without the financial means to suffer the penalties, while the better resourced parties with the most seats in parliament are able to offset any losses incurred by fielding too many men.  Increasing the penalties would certainly help to address this problem, although only if the increase is sufficiently big to deter even the largest parties from paying the financial penalty rather than selecting more women.  The second reason why the law does not work well is that the law applies only to the proportion of candidates, without reference to where they are placed.  My own research has demonstrated that parties disproportionately place women in more difficult seats.  This new measure would do nothing to redress this problem.  Even if a party fulfils its obligation to place women in 50% of its seats, the proportion of women actually elected risks being much lower if the majority of women candidates stand in constituencies where they are certain to lose.  Thus, Hollande’s promise to strengthen parity is to be greeted with cautious approval, as a necessary but insufficient step towards making parity effective.
The other two promises do not mention women’s representation explicitly, but are still consequential for women.  Hollande states that he will force a vote on the divisive issue of the “cumul des mandats”.  This refers to the French practice of holding multiple elected offices at the same time – for example, combining a seat in parliament with being mayor of a local town, a regional councillor and/or president of the county (département).  This practice is disapproved of in some quarters, as it reduces the focus that politicians can place on any one role, leads to chronic absenteeism, and restricts opportunities for new entrants to politics – notably women.  However, the practice is not universally unpopular, even amongst voters, who see an advantage in the dual role of deep immersion in local issues and representation of those issues at the national level.  The majority of French MPs hold at least one local office alongside their parliamentary seat, and many do so unapologetically, arguing that this practice benefits their constituency and makes them better able to defend their constituents’ interests.  Hence, despite several previous attempts at reform, the cumul continues, and Hollande will have his work cut out if he tries to get deputies to vote against their own entrenched interests.  If he does succeed, many positions will be vacated, reducing the opportunity for local fiefdoms and opening up new channels for women trying to break into politics.
Finally, Hollande promises to introduce an element of proportional representation into parliamentary elections.  Perhaps enough water has now passed under the bridge for this to be a credible manifesto pledge once more.  In 1986, François Mitterrand manipulated the electoral system, replacing France’s majoritarian system (single member districts, with elections held over two rounds) with proportional representation.  This was a cynical act designed to mitigate the extent of the Socialist Party’s forthcoming electoral defeat.  The move did indeed offset his party’s losses, but not sufficiently to prevent the Right from coming back into power, at which point they swiftly restored the majoritarian electoral system.  Further attempts at electoral reform have therefore been greeted with suspicion and fears of manipulation and gerrymandering.  This is unfortunate from women’s perspective, as a number of global studies have indicated that women tend to be elected in higher numbers under a proportional representation (PR) electoral system.  PR for parliamentary elections would make the parity law easier to implement, as lists that did not comply with the law could be rejected, and it would be easy to require that women be placed in winnable positions on the list.  It would also be more conspicuous to voters if parties were not respecting parity.  It sounds as though Hollande might be advocating partial reform, perhaps in the form of a mixed member system (where some seats are contested in single-member districts using first-past-the-post, with the remaining seats being used to offset the disproportionalities created by a majoritarian system). Such a move would have a limited, but likely beneficial, impact on the number of women in parliament.
Given the ongoing economic crisis in France, it is unclear how much political capital Hollande would wish to invest in electoral reform if he were to win the election.  At the same time, such measures might help to address French disillusionment with political institutions, and they would be amongst the cheapest of Hollande’s promises to implement.  At a time when the focus of politicians, voters and the media rests squarely on the economy, reforms that might otherwise have appeared radical might slip by relatively unnoticed.  They might also be considered more palatable in a climate where politicians are struggling to offer something positive to voters.  The real test now will be to see whether Sarkozy responds in kind, or whether these promises are allowed to disappear into the small print.

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