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France

Female political fixture takes on prestigious foreign affairs ministry

Video by Josh Vardey

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2010-11-16

A government reshuffle has bestowed the high-profile foreign affairs ministry to former justice minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who despite being a fixture of France's political class, remains relatively unknown to the rest of the world.

Known by the nickname MAM in the French media, Michele Alliot-Marie has been quietly breaking political barriers for French women for over a decade. Her promotion from minister of justice to the role of France’s top diplomat could win her the international renown and domestic following that so far has eluded her.

WHO GOT WHAT?
  • Finance Minister: Christine Lagarde
  • Interior Minister: Brice Hortefeux
  • Defence Minister: Alain Juppé
  • Foreign Affairs Minister: Michèle Alliot-Marie
  • Education Minister: Luc Chatel
  • Justice Minister: Michel Mercier
  • Labour Minister: Xavier Bertrand
  • Agriculture Minister: Bruno Le Maire
  • Culture Minister: Frédéric Mitterrand

Alliot-Marie, 64, was one of three women appointed to top ministries in a cabinet reshuffle by President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon over the weekend. French media, which closely covered and scrutinised the ministerial makeover, said Sarkozy’s new lineup was largely picked to help him rebound from low approval ratings ahead of his re-election bid in 2012.

As French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Alliot-Marie joins US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the European Union’s Catherine Ashton and Spain’s recently appointed Foreign Affairs Minister Trinidad Jimenez, as one of the world’s most influential international policy leaders.

“She is definitely part of an interesting trend to put powerful women in outward-facing positions; women who become the face of their country to the world,” said Judah Grunstein, editor-in-chief of World Politics Review.

It is hard to find a more experienced candidate for the high-profile position. The right-wing Alliot-Marie became the first woman to lead a major French party in 1999, when she won the presidency of the Gaulist Rally for the Republic (RPR) party. Starting in 1986, she held a few low-level ministrial positions, but became the first female minister of defence in 2002, and the first female interior minister in 2007.

She has been described as fearless by the US business magazine Forbes, which reported that Alliot-Marie insists on being called “le Ministre,” using the French masculine form, rather than the feminine “la Ministre”. Forbes named her 11th most powerful woman in its 2007 world ranking.

Ahead of the cabinet reshuffle that saw her land in the foreign affairs chair, Alliot-Marie was even signalled as an outside contender for the prime minister’s job.

But despite her impressive CV and the Forbes accolades, Alliot-Marie remains relatively unknown outside of France. Bernard Kouchner, who she will be replacing, had established himself as a daring human rights activist and the co-founder of Doctors Without Borders before ascending to the post of foreign minister.

“She represents a continuity between the governments of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, which increases her credibility, but at the same time deprives her of a sense of dynamic rise and fall that other French politicians have experienced,” Grunstein explained.

Through quiet and diligent service Alliot-Marie has earned her place among France’s top political brass, but she has never amassed a significant personal following or potential electoral base. It remains to be seen if a role as a leading lady on the international stage will invest her with the star power needed to topple more gender barriers back home.

Date created : 2010-11-15

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