(WOMENSENEWS) -- Women account for 53 percent of French voters but there's little to suggest they will pack their punch behind any single candidate in the first election since the sex-harassment scandal that dashed the presidential hopes of former IMF chief Dominique Straus Khan.
"Questions pertaining to women's issues are secondary to the French population," said Yves-Marie Cann, director of research at the Paris-based polling group CSA. Top voter concerns, he said, are unemployment, purchasing power, the socio-economic model and education.
On April 22, French voters will choose among 10 presidential candidates, three of whom are women: Marine Le Pen, Eva Joly and the extreme-left wing Nathalie Artaud. Unless one candidate claims more than 50 percent of vote, the top two will face a second ballot.
Most polls predict a face-off between the candidate for the Socialist party, Francois Hollande, and the incumbent, President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Marine Le Pen, candidate for the extreme-right wing party, the National Front, is also seen as a serious contender. Often described as "the least feminist candidate," Le Pen nonetheless managed to feminize the electorate of the Front National, which was male-dominated when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen was its president.
"With the candidacy of Marine Le Pen, we see more women saying they would vote for her," Cann said. "We are witnessing a rebalancing of the ratio of men to women within the voters of the party."
Of all the candidates, Hollande is considered the most attentive to women's special interests.
In a February survey by CSA and the women's magazine Terra Femina, Hollande earned 15 percent of respondents' vote as the strongest proponent of women's rights. Another left-wing candidate, Eva Joly of Europe-Ecologie, won 10 percent, the same score as Francois Bayrou of the centrist Modem party. Sarkozy, of the right-wing UMP, earned 9 percent; Marine Le Pen, 8 percent.
While the Strauss-Khan scandal may linger outside the country, it has been largely forgotten by the French public and Strauss-Khan's Socialist party, says Clemence Helfter, an activist with Paris-based Osez le Feminisme or "Dare Feminism." "From the beginning the party diminished DSK's actions and its importance."
Strauss-Kahn was a strong favorite to unseat Sarkozy in the election until his arrest in New York in May on sex assault charges.
Pay Equity, Protection
On the spectrum of women's issues, French voters give priority to pay equity, the protection of abused women, pensions for mothers who gave up work outside the home and assistance to single mothers, according to the CSA/Terra Femina study.
France legalized medical contraception in 1967, abortion in 1975. In contrast to the United States, neither are highly politicized issues in France.
Le Pen has stirred controversy as the field's only candidate opposed to some form of public funding or subsidy of abortion. Le Pen has denounced "abortions of convenience" among women who undergo more than one procedure. The National Front candidate also supports "pre-natal adoption" to "reassure those mothers who for any reasons don't want to get an abortion."
But these are not what Cann calls defining issues for the candidates. "While the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy gives priority to security-related topics, Marine Le Pen emphasizes immigration's issues."
Women's rights advocates have brought demands to left-wing parties that have helped define their positions, says Helfter, the activist with Dare Feminism. "This is not the result of a spontaneous action but rather the consequence of coordinated actions led by feminist movements to add equality between men and women to the political agenda."
Unlike in the United States, where the women's vote is courted, French candidates make few overtures to women as a special voting bloc.
A few weeks ago the fashion magazine Elle and the prestigious school Sciences Po, based in Paris, held forums to prod candidates on their positions on issues of special concern to women.
The socialist Hollande proposed launching a ministry of women's rights to reduce gaps between men and women in all aspects of society. He suggested that parties that don't respect gender parity forego state funding. He also proposed pay-equity measures, including the slashing of social security exemptions for companies that tolerate pay disparities.
Weak Implementation of Laws
Four pay-equity laws have been adopted since 1972, but they have not been properly implemented according to studies and several women's groups.
The pay gap for French women is 27 percent. The World Economic Forum recently downgraded the county to 131st in its world ranking for gender pay parity. Hollande also promised a special "abortion package for minors" totally reimbursed with medical follow-up and anonymity.
Marine Le Pen reiterated her opposition to gender pay parity measures as subverting the principle of "the republican meritocracy."
Clemence Helfter of Dare Feminism, calls Le Pen dangerous for women's rights.
In contrast to the United States, wives and female partners of the French male candidates this political season are keeping a low profile. "Today, we are more into a campaign of image rather than in a genuine political activism," said Raphaelle Bacque, political reporter at the newspaper Le Monde.
Marine Le Pen, who has two children by a husband from whom she is now divorced, says little about her male partner Louis Aliot, vice-president of the Front National.
Danielle Mitterrand and Bernardette Chirac, the wives of former presidents Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, both directly addressed voters on behalf of their husbands. These women, said Bacque, were already politically active before their husbands' elections.
Bernadette Chirac served as First Lady for her husband's tenure from 1995 through 2007. The politically entwined couple has often been compared with Bill and Hillary Clinton.
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Hajer Naili is a writer currently based in New York. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa.