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Women Near Majority in French City Councils

Friday, March 30, 2001

Under a new French law, half of all candidates for political office must be women. And in recent municipal elections, they won nearly half the seats, yet real power remains elusive and women are just beginning to enter the political pipeline.

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Under a new French law, half of all candidates for political office must be women. And in recent municipal elections, they won nearly half the seats, yet real power remains elusive and women are just beginning to enter the political pipeline.
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Violette Baranda

PARIS (WOMENSENEWS)--In a major advance for women in politics, French voters recently elected women to nearly 50 percent of the nation's municipal offices--up from about 22 percent. Yet, women hold only a handful of key offices and face a long road to political influence.

In the first municipal election since the enactment of a law requiring half the candidates be female, women won 47.5 percent of the seats in city government--38,072 out of a total of 83,101. Elected officials include mayors, deputy mayors, treasurers and other officials, as well as city council members.

"These elections are a success for women when we see where we come from, and we owe it to the law," said Claire Bertrand, general secretary of the French Observatoire de la Paritie, an office under the prime minister's purview that promotes equality between women and men.

No other nation requires 50-50 representation of women in slates of candidates.

Bertrand added that while men were ready to let women compete with them for chairs on city councils, they weren't ready to leave the executive posts, such as mayors and deputies. Some male politicians, long accustomed to power, urged their wives, daughters and compliant women to run.

"Many women were not quite ready to take a step forward, because they don't like to be involved in politics," said Violette Baranda, victorious leader of the Green Party slate in the 19th district of the French capital. Each district as its own mayor and council members."They believe they are more effective in associations," Baranda said.

French women historically have preferred to work outside the political mainstream, saying they can get more accomplished in associations. In fact, 80 percent of association members in France are women, compared with the estimated 7.6 percent who were mayors before the election.

Some vocal feminists protested the very concept of half and half electoral slates, arguing it goes against the core principles of French democracy.

Women Make Full-Court Political Debut in Municipal Elections

Men won 52.5 percent of the seats and some blame the 5 point gap between men and women on the placement of women's names at the bottom of some slates. The law requires that three out of every six candidates on any slate be women, but in some cases women were grouped at the bottom of the sixth.

In the French electoral system, each party proposes a list, or slate, on which candidates are elected according to their ranking and according to the percentage of votes the list receives.

Additional election results include:

  • Though all mayors have not yet been chosen by council members, as is the rule in France, the French daily "Le Monde" estimated that only 44 women would become mayors in cities above 15,000 inhabitants. There were 33 before the election.
  • Women are in charge in only 4 of 37 cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants, Strasbourg, Lille, Caen and Aix-en-Provence.
  • In Paris, a woman was elected by the council as deputy mayor, a powerful and coveted position. Women also won 18 executive positions in the city council out of 33.

"I was there when women had to fight for their rights in the late 1960s, and now I am in the front line to see as many women as men elected on the municipal benches," said Baranda, the Green Party leader in the 19th district of Paris.

"It has been quite a while since we asked for a law of parity to be voted," she said in a campaign interview, "because without a law, there are few chances that men will come and ask us to be on their lists. And now, we can legally take a bigger part in politics."

Until now, France has not been in the forefront of the movement to give women equal political rights. In 1944, the French Constitution was amended in order to give women the right to vote--but after many other nations did so. Women in New Zealand were the first to secure the right to vote in 1893, American women got the vote in 1920 and English women in 1928.

Europe's List of Women in Parliament Ranks France Near the Bottom

France ranks second to last out of the 15 members of the European Union in its percentage of women elected to parliament: 10.9 percent, compared with 42.7 percent in top-ranking Sweden. In the U.S. Congress, women represent about 13 percent of the members.

"It is a world premiere," said Lyne Cohen Solal, defeated head of the list for the Socialist Party in the 5th district of Paris.

"I wasn't very much in favor of this law," said 48-year-old Martine Bonvicini, who captured a first council chair for the Socialist Party in the small town of Saint-Quentin. "I thought that no one needed to impose our presence on the lists, since we could do it by ourselves. It's part of my feminist side. But I must recognize that the law has given a boost to equality."

Other women observed that many activist male politicians are reluctant to share power with inexperienced female newcomers.

This major influx of women in the political pipeline highlights their need for training in public speaking, municipal affairs and fund-raising.

Women Need Training to Effectively Enter Political Pipeline

"Since last year, we have had many demands by women who need some background to learn how to behave as a political leader," said Marie-Christine Bordeaux, counsel for an association offering such assistance. Special sessions on issues such as how to handle public meetings, how to organize their municipal offices, even how to handle stress are being offered.

The next step should be getting more women in to executive positions, said Janine Mossuz-Lavau, researcher at the French Center for Studies on Political Life and author of a book on parity.

"Many women will become the mayor's deputies, since the elected representatives can't afford not to choose a women as their assistant, according to recent polls. And in 2007, these deputies will be in good place to take the head office, as long as they get ready for it," she said.

Before then, women will run for higher stakes: the parliamentary elections in May 2002--and the parity in candidacy law applies in those elections too.

"This will be a real test, but let's hope that political parties will not sacrifice women and put them in the front lists where they have no chance to win the elections," said Bertrand of the Observatoire pour la Parité. "But I think the French electors will not be fooled by such a process."

Raphael Sachetat is a free-lance writer based in Paris, who often covers human rights issues. He has worked in the past for the French women magazine "Femme Actuelle."


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A daily feature of Women's Enews during Women's History Month

(WOMENSENEWS)--1997: Jody Williams, an American activist coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 11. Williams founded the organization that worked hard and fast to encourage the banning and removal of anti-personnel mines around the globe.

Upon winning her award, Williams' response was ever focused on her goal. From her backyard in Vermont, Williams, 47, criticized President Clinton, saying he "does not want to be on the side of humanity." At the time the United States, Russia and China had not agreed to sign the proposed international treaty that would ban and clear land mines. They still have not agreed to sign.

The speed at which Williams was able to mobilize organizations and nations to develop a treaty in approximately 14 months was unprecedented. It was a grass-roots effort from Williams' keyboard to activists around the world. With no staff and little funds, all of her communication and organizing was done via email.

A life-long activist, Williams has been described as determined, fearless, irreverent and unrelenting. She started the International Campaign to Band Landmines in 1992, and it grew to encompass over 1,000 nongovernmental organizations in over 60 countries by 1997. She was politically active in protesting the Vietnam War. She spent the 1980s building awareness of U.S. policy toward Central America.

In December 1997 in Ottawa, Canada, 120 nations signed the treaty to ban and clear 100 million land mines. Nations that did not sign include the United States, China and Russia. Clinton sited military risk for U.S. troops in Korea as his reason for not signing.--By Elizabeth Randolph.