During the election campaign, François Hollande promised that he would install a parity government, although he added “which is not to say that [women] will have the same responsibilities”. How true this turned out to be. He honoured his promise of a parity government, with 50% (9/18) of the members of cabinet being women, and 50% (17/34) of the government being women after all other members were added. That’s a first for France, and for this reason alone, this is a landmark event for women in French politics that is worthy of celebration. He also honoured his promise to reinstate a women’s ministry, with its newly appointed minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, holding a cabinet portfolio. However, women should not be popping the champagne corks just yet.
Why not? The answer lies in the rather meagre status accorded to women in the government, compared to men. The top job – that of Prime Minister – was sought after by many people, but one of the most credible contenders was Martine Aubry. As leader of the party, an experienced former minister, the narrow loser in the presidential primary race, the most popular candidate (by a significant margin) in opinion polls, and someone who could rally support from the sections of the party that are not in Hollande’s camp, she would have made a formidable ally. However, Hollande overlooked her in favour of Jean-Marc Ayrault, a much less well-known loyalist who could be relied upon to offer faithful support to the president without risk of upstaging him. Having been snubbed for the top job, Aubry decided that she did not wish to play second fiddle yet again, with the consequence that she is not in the government at all. Her political future now looks uncertain; even if she remains as party leader, this position is much less powerful at a time when her party holds the presidency and the government. She has said that she will not seek re-election in October; but as she is not a candidate in the legislative elections, she risks going from being the most senior woman in the party to being just a local politician (mayor of Lille). Sidelining her instead of giving her a prominent post was an unfortunate result for Hollande, for women and thus for France.
Nor is Ségolène Royal in the government, although she has long been tipped to become the next president of the French parliament – the equivalent of the Speaker. Such a position will depend, of course, on a Socialist victory in the forthcoming legislative elections in June.
Without Aubry or Royal, it was left to the big boys in the party to fight it out for the top jobs. All the rumours prior to the announcement of the government focused on male contenders. In the end, men got almost a clean sweep of the top posts. Of the most prestigious and coveted posts, all but one went to men, including the ministries of the Interior, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Defence, Work and Employment, and Industry. Men also picked up portfolios in Education, Agriculture and Overseas Relations. The only remaining top job – that of Justice – went to Christiane Taubira. She is a deputy from the overseas territory of French Guyana, and stood as a candidate in the 2002 presidential election for the Radical Left Party (Parti Radical du Gauche). She is widely considered to be a surprise choice for this position, as she has not held a high profile in recent years and was not a key figure in the presidential campaign. However, the practice of selecting less prominent women for key posts is very well-established. The “fait du prince”, whereby the male president “gifts” a government post to a less powerful woman, is a way for the president to look progressive while ensuring that his female protégée cannot become too powerful and challenge his authority. While Taubira is hardly powerless, she is less of a political heavyweight and has less autonomy than someone like Aubry, and is more in keeping with previous appointments of female outsiders.
As for the other women, what did they get? The picture is rather disappointing. Women got nearly all the stereotypically “feminine” portfolios that are less prominent and prestigious, including (in the Cabinet) Social Affairs & Health, Culture & Communication, Higher Education, the Environment, Decentralisation, Women’s Ministry, Housing and the Regions, and Sport & Youth. This very gendered distribution of government portfolios mirrors the sharp gender divide in parliamentary committees, where women are heavily over-represented on the committees for Social Affairs (including health) and Cultural Affairs (including education), and almost absent from the committees on Finance, Foreign Affairs and Defence. It would seem that place can be made for women only if women remember their place – in the “social” portfolios.
In the wider government, a similar picture emerges. Men got Budget, European Affairs, Cities, Parliamentary Relations, Economic Solidarity, Transport, Development, and Veterans. Women got junior posts in the ministries of Education and Justice, along with Senior Citizens, Family, Disabled People, and the less gendered posts of Commerce, Innovation and Expatriates. Giving all the caring roles to women seems nothing short of a cliché. The women holding these posts include Marisol Touraine (Social Affairs), a two-term deputy whom I interviewed last year as part of my ongoing study of gender in the French parliament and who has worked for a long time on social affairs; Marylise Lebranchu (Decentralisation), one of the most senior figures in the previous Socialist government (1997-2002) and the first woman to hold the position of Justice Minister (which has since also been held by Rachida Dati); Cécile Duflot (Housing and the Regions), the outgoing leader of the Green party but still a relatively young up-and-comer; Nicole Bricq (Environment), a relatively low-profile Senator who cut her teeth in the male-dominated Senate finance committee; Aurélie Filipetti Culture), who first cut her teeth in the campaign for Ségolène Royal in 2007 and, like Duflot, is still in her 30s; Najat Vallaud-Belkacem (Women), even younger at 34 and with limited political experience, though she symbolises diversity given her Moroccan heritage; Geneviève Fioraso (Higher Education), 57 years old, a one-term MP and also rather low profile; and Valérie Fourneyron (Sport and Youth), MP, mayor of Rouen and doctor specialising in sport who seems very well qualified for her portfolio.
It should be borne in mind that only four of the 34 new members of government have prior government experience, including Marylise Lebranchu. Even Hollande and Ayrault, the president and prime minister, have no prior ministerial experience. The Socialists’ re-entry into power after a long period of exile affords an opportunity for more junior people to emerge, as was the case in the UK with New Labour in 1997. The fact that some of the new women ministers are relatively inexperienced is therefore not a handicap, making this the ideal time for women to enter the government in large numbers.
So how does the new government compare to its predecessors? It has more women than ever before. Sarkozy also promised a parity government, but did not really deliver. However, with 7 women out of 15 members of cabinet, and women comprising a third of the government overall, his first government did better than any of its predecessors. The Jospin government (1997-2002) and the first Fillon government (under Sarkozy) also boasted a number of women in key positions, including, at various times, Justice, Finance, Foreign Affairs and Defence. However, the number and profile of women declined in successive governments under Fillon. The boost of women today is therefore to be welcomed, but it is regrettable that the portfolios accorded to women are less high profile and prestigious than those seen in previous governments, with old-fashioned stereotypes re-emerging. Two steps forward, one step back. It can only be hoped that some of the younger women who have been given their big break within this government will go on to become the key players of the future – with one of them potentially becoming France’s first female president.