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Why has there never been a female president of France?

The Elysee Palace in Paris has never been home to a female president.
The Elysee Palace in Paris has never been home to a female president. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)
While more and more women are being elected as MPs, France has never had a female president - we spoke to experts to ask why this is, and whether the pattern is likely to change.

Liberty, equality and brotherhood. The highest level of French politics has been dominated by men since time immemorial. 

There has been progress. Female representation in the National Assembly is highest it has ever been (at 38.7 percent) and half of all ministerial positions are held by women. 

READ ALSO A look inside France’s new, younger and less male dominated parliament

But France has never had a female president and only two female candidates have ever made it to the second round run-off vote: Ségolène Royal who won 47 percent of the vote in 2007 against Nicolas Sarkozy; and Marine Le Pen who won 33.9 percent of the vote in 2017 against Emmanuel Macron. 

Overstated progress

While there has been progress in female representation in French politics, this should not be overstated, according to Florence Sandis, author of Brisez le Plafond de Verre (Break the Glass Ceiling). 

“It is all very well winning a seat in the National Assembly, but to have influence, you need to be sitting on the right commissions or other important positions,” she said. 

Sandis worked with female candidates hoping to become MPs in the run up to the last parliamentary elections. Many of those who were successful have since told her: “We are visible, but not heard. There is always a presumption of incompetence.” 

While Macron’s cabinet is gender balanced, the most important positions such as the Finance, Interior and Foreign Ministries, not to mention the Prime Minister, are held by men.

Until women are routinely holding top positions in the National Assembly and higher levels of French politics, female candidates will have a hard time proving their credentials. 

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“French people associate power with masculinity,” said Amandine Clavaud, Director of the Gender Equality Observatory at the Jean Jaurès Foundation, a French think-tank. “It comes from the fact that we are in a society where power is held by men.” 

Five months out from the 2022 presidential election, the far right candidate Marine Le Pen is the highest ranking woman in the polls, averaging at about 18 percent. Last time, she won 21.3 percent in the first round.

Clavaud suggested that a win for Le Pen would not necessarily be a step forward for women. 

“Since Marine Le Pen took control of the Rassemblement National party, she has partly closed the gender gap among her party’s supporters. But she certainly would not incarnate the rights of women if she was elected. Most people who care about the rights of women are worried about her policies,” she said. 

Everyday sexism

Sexism plays a huge role in preventing women entering politics in the first place – and often hurts those brave enough to do so. 

A 2020 poll found that 71 percent of French people thought it was ‘desirable’ to have a female president by 2030. While this was heralded as sign of progress by much of the national media, Sandis viewed it differently. 

READ ALSO France on course to close its gender pay gap – by 2234

“It showed that close to 30 percent of the population say there cannot be a woman, no matter what,” she said. 

The media doesn’t help. 

“Invitees on the radio are men. The people most cited in the media are men. It is difficult for women to imagine themselves in politics,” said Sandis. “We have been living in a sexist society for millennia.”

A recent tribune in Le Monde, signed by 285 women working in politics and academia, including a number of MPs and the vice-president of the Senate, said that a number of elected officials are known to be perpetrators of sexual and sexist violence. Women have been wolf whistled in the National Assembly as recently as 2012 and female MPs are routinely subject to sexist threats online. 

Diane Richard, an activist with #NousToutes, a feminist organisation, believes that the same dynamics that lead to gender violence are also present in the political sphere. 

“In public as in private, women are scared. As soon as they come out of the shadows, they are attacked. It all begins with violence,” she said. 

Virility

About 1,500 years ago, the first Frankish King, Clovis, passed the Salic Law code which explicitly barred women from ascending to the throne. France was one of the last European countries to give women the right to vote, in 1944. 

When de Gaulle was elected as the first President of the Fifth Republic in 1958 following a military-political crisis in Algeria, the role of the presidency continued to be defined through a masculine blueprint.  

“De Gaulle was a providential figure, a military man, the father of the nation” explained Sandrine Lévêque, a professor at Sciences Po Lille and researcher with Ceraps. “Since then, we have had this idea that the president must be a warlord who is confident having the keys to the nuclear weapons arsenal.” 

Then there is the sexual element. 

“We have this image of the president as a solitary man with a reputation for being a powerful lover,” said Lévêque.

François Mitterand, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac were among the French leaders known to have had extra-marital affairs while more recently presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande also had complicated love lives.

“This virility is seen as a composite part of power,” said Lévêque. “The woman that Emmanuel Macron loves is an older woman. Because of sexism, this led some to accuse him of being gay and having sexual adventures with men. He was obligated to argue otherwise.” 

Current polling still has Macron on course to win another term in 2022, so it looks like the masculine domination of the top job will continue for another five years – but polls are far from an exact science and French elections can be wildly unpredictable. 


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