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French women and power, a poor blueprint for modernity

by Caroline Gaudriault

Response to Jacques de Guillebon

Dear Jacques de Guillebon,

I am very much in agreement with you about the oh-so-French topos of women vying with each other for the crumbs of political power. But in developing your idea, you seem to suggest that, although some women have, without ever rising to the very top, held important political posts, the gender as a whole still find itself weighed down by the historical yoke of a political history dominated by men. And when you express doubts about whether they have the desire to change this situation, for me your position is clear.

At a time when there are eighteen female heads of state around the world, France is still shackled by its picaresque tradition of mistresses and concubines. Of course, French women have made a major contribution to the history of their country, but romantic (dare I say macho?) Frenchmen are of the opinion that, in the end, they govern more effectively alongside, rather than instead of, men. However, to persist in denying that times have changed and to continue to insist that women content themselves with supporting roles is madness. A country’s Modernity is judged not only on its scientific and technological developments, but also on its mentalities. Far be it from me to plunge into the kind of societal debate of which Najat Vallaud-Belkacem [French Minister for Women’s Affairs] might approve; in reality, there is no debate about women holding high political office in France. The situation is, simply, a symptom of popular hypocrisy, a situation defined by the well established power of men in the political sphere. Access to high political office is blocked by the overwhelmingly male nature of our power elites, run by men for hundreds of years: Free Masonry, press barons …
Clearly, removal of these obstacles will be partially dependent on the goodwill of men. But once acquired, privileges are difficult to hand back.

When we consider Christina Fernandex de Kirchner in Argentina, Dilma Vana Roussef in Brazil and Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica, we are able to gain an insight into the level of machismo in France, and in southern Europe in general.

Naturally, in the media all women politicians are portrayed in a more glamorous light than are their male colleagues. We are provided with details about their fashion sense, their hair styles, their sex appeal, their children … Most, like Edith Cresson and, more recently, Nathalie Kossciusko-Morizet, complain about it. Some, like Carla Bruni, do not. And in the National Assembly, all of them are put under the microscope. The result: long skirts, short hair and strictly no décolleté. Politics first, femininity second. Sexist “jokes” about women have a violent undertow (are they designed to destabilise?), while similar observations about men (remember the “beau Villepin”?) have something complimentary about them. But, in the end, perhaps women will choose to take a strategic step backwards and assume their femininity without being scared of it. An attractive woman in her forties, Nathalie Kosciuko-Morizet has decided to (literally) let her hair down, using her looks to political advantage. Yet it is from men in her own party that criticism has been most venomous.

Whatever the case may be, it is true that not only has there never been a female President of France, but that French First Ladies have never been popular. A completely different situation pertains in the United States, where Michelle Obama is accorded responsibility and respect, as was Hilary Clinton before her. Perhaps we ourselves push our First Ladies into the most unedifying positions. According to the paparazzi who stalked her, the present incumbent had a rival for a year; two years, according to media sources. So, either her ignorance of the matter was unmitigated, or her desire to remain within touching distance of power outweighed the humiliation implied by her unappetising situation.

Beyond moral judgments, which are not relevant in this context, the situation (which is repeating itself) demonstrates that the time has come for a female President of the French Republic.

Caroline Gaudriault

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