Parity on the march in France as Macron makes his mark in legislative opener
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While French President Emmanuel Macron’s sweeping dominance is the main takeaway from Sunday’s first round of legislative elections, there was another big winner on Sunday night: gender parity.
At least 245 women candidates topped their legislative races in Sunday night’s first round. If every one of those leading ladies won election next Sunday, France’s lower-house National Assembly would reach a high-water mark for its own gender parity at more than 42 percent – still not proper parity, but a relative giant leap for womankind in this chamber. In 2012, French voters elected 155 female lawmakers to the National Assembly, or nearly 27 percent, already a record. Only 20 years ago, in 1997, women still made up just 10.9 percent of the country’s lower-house lawmakers -- in a country that did not give women the right to vote until 1944.
To be sure, women made up a little more than 42 percent of the 7,877 candidates contesting the 577 seats up for grabs in these legislative elections. But the ratio of women candidates on the ballot is not necessarily a strong indicator of how many will win lawmaker roles. Recall that, in 2002, when a law came into effect penalising parties financially for not presenting a gender-equitable slate of candidates, women represented 39 percent of those standing for the legislature, but ultimately only 12.31 percent of those elected.
In this race, as Le Monde illustrated in a report earlier this month, France’s political parties again tended to invest male hopefuls in the electoral districts most “winnable” for their given faction -- but not in the same proportion across all parties. The French daily found that the conservative Les Républicains (LR)– which has a history of conceding millions of euros in financial penalties for not investing a 50-50 roster of male and female candidates in elections -- had invested only 16 women in its 50 most winnable districts, compared to 22 out of 50 for Macron’s La République en marche (LREM).
Macron’s extraordinary surge -- and the projected loss of dozens of seats for the conservatives -- is clearly a factor in the potential for greater parity after next Sunday’s final vote. Indeed, only 39 percent of the candidates LR invested in this legislative race were women, compared to 51 percent for Macron’s LREM. The president’s fledgling party had made a point of highlighting that its nominations were not only split evenly between men and women candidates but that its female contingent was being put forward in its fair share of “favourable” districts.
“The strong score registered by women in the first round is due to the groundswell for La République en marche candidates. The evidence is that 78 percent of the women who finished first in their district were running under the president’s [party] banner,” Mariette Sineau, a French researcher at the CEVIPOF, told FRANCE 24’s Aude Mazoué. “Political landslides always benefit outsiders, which include women. The unknown or inexperienced candidates invested in districts that are reputedly difficult to win were carried away with the magnitude of the wave nationally.”
Sineau argues that two recent laws have also been favourable to a more feminine National Assembly. One is legislation that doubles the financial penalties for parties derelict in naming women candidates. Another is the law forbidding parliamentarians from holding a concurrent elected office in a local executive, which took effect for the first time on Sunday. Many incumbents decided not to run as a result, in favour of, for example, keeping their mayor’s office instead. “The men – often in the situation of accumulating [multiple elected offices] -- thereby had to drop their National Assembly lawmaker mandate, which created a vacuum and benefitted the young and women,” the specialist Sineau said.
It bears noting that while the 245 figure includes women candidates who finished only marginally ahead of an opponent (male or female) with whom they will face off next Sunday, it doesn’t include aspiring women lawmakers who finished a close second. One of the latter cases is LREM newcomer Marie Sara, a 52-year-old former horseback bullfighter who finished the first round just 48 votes behind the National Front’s only incumbent facing re-election, Gilbert Collard.
Indeed, an influx of women in the lower house should evidently not obscure the diversity of those candidates profiles and priorities. The 245 figure includes, for one, National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is likely to win a seat for the first time in the Pas-de-Calais where she earned 46.02 percent of the vote on Sunday. The anti-immigration Europhobe, last month’s presidential runner-up, has for her part been ambivalent in her positions on women’s reproductive issues and few would seriously tout her as a feminist.
As it happens, moreover, recent Socialist cabinet ministers for women’s rights who were running in this election were not spared in the first-round rout of their party. Pascale Boistard was eliminated outright on Sunday, while Najat Vallaud-Belkacem -- who at 39, and having already also served as an emblematic young education minister, is an ostensible leading light in her party's now uncertain future -- did advance to the run off. But Vallaud-Belkacem is 20 points behind her (male) LREM opponent ahead of next Sunday’s finale. Meanwhile, high-profile feminist activist Caroline de Haas, running for the green EELV party in Paris, was eliminated in the first round, finishing fourth with 13.57 percent.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global database currently ranks France’s lower house 63rd on its world table of legislative gender parity. As an indication, if all of the women who topped the first round in France won their seats next Sunday, the country would leap into the top 10. But France would still have a long way to go before claiming the top spot. Rwanda, where women hold the majority of lower-house seats with 61.3 percent, holds that mantle.