Brigitte Aflalo-Calderon

(WOMENSENEWS)–Segolene Royal not only lost the bid for France’s presidency in the May 6 election, she also lost her bid for the women’s vote.

Only 48 percent of women voted for Royal, according to an Ipsos poll conducted May 6 while 52 percent supported the victorious Nicolas Sarkozy.

Now we’ll just have to see if French women will pay the price or if Sarkozy can prove he deserved the women’s trust.

When she was campaigning, Royal said the first law she intended to present to Parliament would concern violence against women. The law would prevent violent husbands and live-in partners from using visitation rights with their children to have access to their spouses. Furthermore, Royal said that staff working in police stations would be trained to provide both psychological and administrative assistance to women pressing charges.

The victorious Nicolas Sarkozy also made it a campaign issue, saying he intended to fight the plague of violence “with actions rather than strong declarations.” Last year, he supported the passage of a law giving the court the authority to order abusive spouses and partners out of the house. Already in effect, this law constitutes a major advance. In the past, abused women had no option but to leave their homes, often with no resources of their own.

Sarkozy has committed to creating a national policy on violence, which is still lacking here. The French advocacy groups National Collective for Women’s Rights and Neither Whores Nor Submissives have been actively pushing for such a law and will participate in its development, along with other organizations.

Domestic violence is an ugly fact of life in many countries, including France. In 2006, 137 out of 168 (82 percent) deaths from domestic violence were women. In France, one woman dies every day from domestic violence, and 1 out of 10 is a victim of physical, verbal, psychological and/or sexual violence committed by a partner or an ex-partner.

The situation is so alarming that Amnesty International considers it an “affaire d’etat” (a matter of state).

Following the May 6 elections, Neither Whores Nor Submissives published a letter on its Web site warning the president-elect that it would follow attentively the government’s actions on issues of discrimination against women.

Women’s Wages

The matter of French women’s wages also warrants urgent political attention.

At every level of academic qualification here, men are paid more than women. A study comparing salaries between men and women at equal positions and with equal diplomas from the French Ecoles Superieures (equivalent to America’s Ivy League universities) showed that salary differentials exist from the very first job (18 percent). Thereafter, the gap widens to 24 percent in mid- to late-career.

On average, women’s salaries are 19 percent lower than men’s when based on women and men working full time. In addition to lower pay for equal work, women toil in the lower-wage areas of the economy.

They remain over-represented in the service sector where they constitute 71 percent of the total work force. Similarly, 30 percent of women working full time are civil service employees, versus 17 percent of men. Conversely, women are under-represented in the private sector. They account for only 7 percent of executives in France’s top 5,000 companies.

Having a family is one of the reasons that limit women’s access to managerial positions. Traditionally, family life and domestic chores in France are an “affaire de femmes” (women’s responsibilities). Fifty-eight percent of women interrupt their jobs after their second child, some by choice but many others for lack of access to adequate child-care facilities.

And while the number of women entering the workplace keeps growing, many women are employed in part-time jobs where salaries are meager. Women represent 80 percent of the under-employed work force.

Pension Disparity

All these inequalities have a snowball effect on women’s pensions. A 2003 survey by Union Syndicale Solidaires, a national labor union, showed that only 39 percent of retired women are able to pay contributions over an unbroken career, versus 85 percent of males. Among retired women, 27 percent were able to pay contributions for 10 to 25 years while the proportion of men working less than 25 years is marginal.

According to a 2004 National Institute of Statistics and Economics’ survey, women age 60 and over received a monthly retirement pension averaging $1,380 against $2,200 for men. For women over 85, monthly pensions dropped to $1,070, well under the designated poverty line, versus $1,760 for their male counterparts.

Royal promised a 5 percent increase for pensions in the lowest bracket (85 percent of recipients are elderly women). She also proposed to establish a chart that would guarantee equal access and treatment for men and women in both the private and public sectors.

Sarkozy promised to name a minister for women’s rights and equality. On the issue of pensions, Sarkozy would extend eligibility to women who interrupt their work for family reasons.

Immigrant Women

Immigrant women here also face a special set of concerns.

Out of the 4.5 million immigrants living in France, half are women. Most of these women are between 20 and 45. Women of African origin–including the Maghreb region in the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia–are vulnerable to discrimination for a number of reasons.

One is ignorance. Traditionally, women of the Maghreb are considered invisible. Their role is to care for their families and assume household chores. Hence, many are poorly educated and submissive to the authority of the man or men of the house. They are unaware of their rights as French citizens or as French residents and, of course, don’t exercise these rights. As children of immigrants, they are still exposed to judicial decisions taken in their country of origin, such as repudiation, which under Muslim law gives the husband the right to annul a marriage without informing his wife.

Another component is judicial. France has signed bilateral conventions with several countries (Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Cameroon and Mauritania) that recognize the right to polygamy. Although polygamy is of course illegal in France, the French government cannot enforce French law in the case of weddings held in the countries of origin.

Other factors are cultural and sociological. Differences between the sexes are institutionalized in many Muslim countries. Often, girls agree to an arranged marriage because they are young and fear rejection by their families. Female immigrants in France, in particular Maghreban women, remain isolated because, unlike men, they aren’t culturally encouraged to seek employment outside the home. They don’t speak French fluently, which partially explains why a majority remains unemployed.

Royal vowed to address the issues facing immigrant women within the larger framework of the project of law on violence against women. She promised to pay particular attention to the issues of forced marriages, repudiation and genital mutilation.

Sarkozy proposed using the immigration policy to enforce certain French social standards in a way that could benefit some women. For instance, he said he would withhold visas from male immigrants who won’t allow their wives to learn French.

Let’s see what happens.

Brigitte Aflalo-Calderon is a writer based in Nimes, France.

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For more information:

Neither Whores Nor Submissives:

National Collective for Women’s Rights (in French):

National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies: