Friday, 2 March 2012

François the Feminist? Or Hollande the Hypocrite?

  Six days before International Women’s Day (which the French take seriously), François Hollande assembled his party’s feminists at his campaign headquarters and rolled out his proposals for gender equality.  At first glance, they look pretty impressive.  He’s offering the following:
  • A parity government
  • The reintroduction of a Women’s Rights Ministry
  • The removal of all state funding for parties who do not respect the parity law (by fielding an equal number of men and women candidates for parliamentary elections)
  • Big businesses will have one year to sort out the gender pay gap, or else lose national insurance credits
  • There should be an abortion clinic in every hospital, fully funded by the state
  • There should be more shelters for victims of domestic violence
  • Children should be taught gender equality in schools
  • Secularism (laïcité) is a safeguard of gender equality
  Sounds good – but when you look a bit closer, there’s not actually that much innovation here, and it is clearly driven by electoral imperatives.  There are some smart political moves in these measures.  Some of them may sound familiar – promises made (but not kept) by rivals; traditional Socialist strengths; or a contrast with less favourable policies by others.  Let’s start with a parity government.  Sarkozy promised this, with some fanfare, in 2007.  He has certainly placed more women in his government than any predecessor, several of whom have been in high profile posts.  But he never achieved his promise of a parity government, and the presence of women has declined in both quantity and quality of positions with every reshuffle.  With a large pool of prominent women in the PS – including party leader Martine Aubry, and former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal – Hollande is better placed to keep this promise.
  The reintroduction of a Women’s Rights Ministry is a reminder to voters that there used to be one, introduced by the Socialists, which has since disappeared under the UMP government.
The proposal for parity in parliamentary elections is a good move.  It’s not as good as it sounds, because it still only refers to the number of candidates selected, and does not address the tendency across all parties to place women in less winnable seats.  But it would certainly help to address the current situation, whereby parties lose only a small portion of their state funding if they do not fulfil the legal requirement to field women candidates in half their seats, which means that several parties (including the UMP) don’t respect the law.  Removing all funding for parties unless they comply would force them to comply – even the UMP could not afford to get round that one.  The Socialists have already managed to reach the target, facilitated by the fact that they have been in opposition for two terms. Hence in most seats they do not have a sitting male incumbent and can therefore offer these seats to women candidates.  By contrast, the UMP has a much weaker track record on gender parity, and has a much bigger problem with male incumbents who would not wish to surrender their seats for a woman candidate.  So a tightening of the law is a clever manoeuvre for François Hollande.  It would place the UMP in a difficult position whereby they would either have to force some of their male MPs to stand down (which would doubtless lead to internal dissent and possible mutiny) or would be bankrupted.  Meanwhile, the Socialists have reminded the public that they are the frontrunners on this issue.  And Sarkozy will not be able to oppose Hollande’s suggestion without looking sexist.  All in all, a smart political tactic and potentially a big step towards making gender parity more effective.
  The threat towards big businesses who do not respect a gender pay gap is really a reminder to voters that Sarkozy is cozy with big businesses and Hollande is not afraid to stand up to them in the name of equality.  So this is a shout out to the left of his party.  The gender pay legislation is already in place, introduced by the current right-wing government, so all that Hollande is proposing here is to step up penalties for non-implementation.
  The support for abortion clinics is a veiled attack on Marine le Pen, who has indicated that she would like to see a reduction in state funding for abortion.
  Finally, if support for victims of domestic violence sounds familiar, it is because this is what Ségolène Royal promised to do as her first act in office, back in 2007.

  So several things old, something new, plenty borrowed, and multiple attacks on the Blues.  It will be interesting to see if the other candidates attempt to do something similar over the coming days, as the annual furore surrounding Women’s Day gathers momentum.  After a dip in the polls earlier this week that saw Hollande’s lead over Sarkozy tumble to one point in the first round, Hollande is today back up to a comfortable 3.5 point lead.  It will be interesting to see whether this raft of proposals reels in any women voters.

  He didn’t impress all the women though.  In fact, while his advisors may have presented him with a feminist discourse and set of policies, he let slip a decidedly un-feminist gaffe.  “It would be good in principle to have as many men as women in the government”, he announced, before adding, “which is not to say that they will have the same responsibilities”.  Oops.  Just like that, the veil of feminism fell off.  It didn’t go unnoticed, either.  While the Socialist Sisterhood tweeted enthusiastically about the policies listed above, Marie-Jo Zimmerman pounced on this gaffe.  “It’s scandalous to say such things!” she told AFP.  “That means that women are just the under-under-secretaries and won’t be ministers or Secretaries of State.  I can’t understand how someone could come out with such things in 2012. If Yvette Roudy [prominent feminist Socialist and the first Women’s Minister] reads that she’ll scream, and with good reason.”  Zimmerman is well placed to make such a comment.  A member of parliament for the UMP, she is the president of the Parliamentary Delegation for Women’s Rights, and the former director of the Parity Observatory, the government’s official watchdog for gender parity.  So François the “Feminist” found himself getting shot down – by the Right.

  A sharp reminder that you can offer many women-friendly policies in a speech surrounded by feminists, declare yourself a feminist, go through all the motions, and still manage to balls it up.  I hope he has learned his lesson.  Policies designed primarily to hurt his rivals and score him points are all well and good, but if anyone is to believe that these promises are underpinned by anything more than the desire to win the election, he will need to start showing some sincerity.  Perhaps he could start by reshuffling his (male-dominated) campaign team?

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