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2007 May Be 'Year of the Woman' in French Politics


In April, France holds presidential elections that may usher in the country's first female leader. Socialist politician Segolene Royal, 53, has been dominating the news for months. However, she is hardly the only woman running. Indeed, Lisa Bryant reports for VOA from Paris that 2007 may be "the year of the woman" in France with a potential surge of female candidates in upcoming legislative elections as well.

Corinne Lepage still remembers being humiliated, a decade ago, as French lawmakers tore apart draft environmental legislation introduced by a fellow conservative politician. She was France's minister of the environment at the time, under former prime minister Alain Juppe.

Lepage says the deputies treated the document disrespectfully, and her as well. She believes that would never have happened, had she been a man.

The incident certainly did not kill Lepage's appetite for politics. She has thrown her hat into France's presidential race, taking on an alias - that of the influential, 16th century French queen Catherine de Medicis.

Today, she is among at least half a dozen female candidates hoping to run in the first round of voting, in April.

Female candidates are also clamoring to run in June legislative elections. Their numbers prompted this headline in the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche: "2007: The Year of Women?"

Political scientists like Janine Mossuz-Lavau say being a woman this election season may be an asset.

Mossuz-Lavau says a number of factors explain the new, more welcoming climate for female politicians in France. French legislation to equalize the political playing field has helped. Many French women work these days, which also favors political engagement. Then there is the international context: Women have recently been elected presidents for the first time in Chile and Liberia.

Nobody is capitalizing more on the trend than Socialist lawmaker Segolene Royal. Although she has lost points recently after a series of political gaffes, she topped French polls for months. If she is elected, she would be France's first female president.

Royal is no newcomer. She has been in politics since 1981. But, with her wide smile, her elegant outfits and her grassroots "listen-to-the-people" image, she passes as a fresh and attractive face.

French analyst Dominique Moisi says Royal is the right gender.

"She is a woman," he noted. "And, a woman sounds modern. A woman sounds like the thing to do. We've tried everything and failed, so far. Why not try a woman?"

Most of the other female presidential candidates are also political veterans. They include former Environment Minister Dominique Voynet, who is running for the Green Party, and Communist Party boss Marie-George Buffet.

Then there is Troskyite Arlette Laguiller, 66, who became the first French woman to run for president, in 1974. At the time, a French general suggested she would do better marrying a parachutist than running for office. But Laguiller believes her candidacy sparked a debate on the place of women in politics.

Still, Laguiller notes, even if there are more female candidates for the presidential elections today, they remain a minority in politics, especially in parliament.

According to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, women hold just 12 percent of seats in France's National Assembly, or lower house, and 17 percent in the Senate. Only five of the 27 European Union countries score lower. Globally, France ranks an unimpressive 86th place out of 139 nations, behind Greece, Gambia, Afghanistan and Tunisia.

Emmanuelle Latour, secretary general of France's Parity Observatory, a government-created body, says France is only slowly entering the democratic revolution, when it comes to gender parity, mostly because of European directives. She says male dominance in politics and in the private sector has historical backing. For example, France once observed Salic laws that barred women from ascending the throne.

But Latour believes that things can change with a little political will. She points to the example of neighboring Spain, where Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has championed women's rights through new legislation and by appointing an equal number of men and women to his cabinet.

Several French prime ministers have also promoted women in politics, with varying degrees of conviction. In 2000, the former leftist government passed a parity law, stipulating political parties field an equal number of male and female candidates in legislative and local elections. Although most of the smaller parties have observed the law, the two largest, the Socialists and the Union for a Popular Movement Party, have not.

This year may be different. The Socialists, for one, have vowed to observe the parity law in the June legislative vote.

But for now, the country's attention is focused on the presidential race and the chances that one woman, Segolene Royal, might win it.