The second round of the French Presidential elections took place on 24 April. Twelve million people (including me) were glued to their television for the results. With a literal sense of déjà vu: for the third time in 20 years, the country was facing a run-off between a mainstream and far-right candidate.
In the final seconds before the results came in, one of the commentators wondered aloud whether France was about to about to live a historic moment if Marine le Pen was elected – not only as the country’s first far-right President, but as its first female leader. Ultimately, the question was moot, as we know. But it got me thinking. Is there a gendered vote in France?
School textbooks in France place the introduction of universal suffrage in 1848. But (in usual-default-male mode) ‘universal’ actually translates as ‘male’. French women did not get the vote until 1944, almost a century later. According to Sciences Po-Cevipof political analyst Janine Mossuz-Lavau, when they did begin to vote, it was initially conservatively, given the strong influence of Catholic values of the period. Over time, and with increasing participation in the workforce, issues as social protection, pay or working conditions lessened those conservative voting patterns. But as much as the popular press and opinion pollsters continue to warn would-be candidates about the need to woo the ‘women’s vote’, it would appear that there is no longer any significant difference between how women and men vote as gendered groups in France. Across the 12 candidates of the first round of this year’s Presidential election, for example, the maximum gap between female and male voting intentions was 3-4 points.
With one exception: former journalist and hard-right candidate, Eric Zemmour. For Zemmour, who stood for the first time this year, male voting intentions were twice as high as women’s. Mossuz-Lavau explains this as a transfer of votes from male electors who felt obliged to vote for Marine Le Pen in previous elections (as the only far-right candidate) but who happily transferred their support to Zemmour when a choice was made possible between a man or a woman championing the cause. Perhaps in secret agreement with Zemmour’s view that “it’s only when politics has lost all power, and no other presidential candidate is doing well enough, that the presence of a woman in the Elysée becomes a possible, if barely credible, hypothesis” since “women do not symbolize power, and that’s all there is to it. Power disappears as soon as they come on the scene.”
Perhaps those same voters had also been put off by recent efforts to soften Marine le Pen’s image, judged too abrasive, with photos of the candidate with cute cats on Instagram, or talking about the difficulties of single motherhood. On the other hand, Le Pen’s presidential slogan, “Femme d’Etat” (“Stateswoman”), was meant to reassure voters that she was perfectly capable of running the French Republic. Centre-right party candidate Valérie Pécresse followed suit, holding political rallies where she altered her voice to make it deeper and slower. Pointlessly, it would seem: a December 2021 poll showed that 90% of French people had no problem voting for a female candidate as President (unlike Zemmour’s electorate, of whom only 72% could stomach such a result).
The 2022 election was somewhat of an outlier in terms of the number of female candidates (5) who stood, including for France’s two historically two biggest parties. Previous elections have not been so diverse. The first woman to stand was in 1974, in the form of anti-capitalist candidate Arlette Laguiller. Laguiller went on to run in another six Presidential elections (patiently enduring puzzled questions from journalists about her makeup, or why she did not have children). It was not until 2007 that a female candidate made it through to the second round, in the form of Ségolène Royal (Socialist Party) running against Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP). Highlights from that campaign included the television debate in which Sarkozy chastised Royal with “Please do calm down… to be President, one has to keep one’s calm” when Royal was making a passionate point; and the legendary reaction from Laurent Fabius (a heavyweight in Royal’s own party) to her announcement she was running for President: “but who will look after the children?”.
The lack of a gendered vote is not really surprising when we consider that women vote firstly as human beings, not as a homogeneous group; and that presidential elections are rarely fought on the issue of women’s rights. Instead, across typical issues of purchasing power, health or education, both sexes are more likely to vote according to socio-economic determinants or party allegiance. Nor did any of the candidates focus especially on women’s rights during the campaign (apart from Le Pen’s call to ban women from wearing the Muslim headscarf in public spaces, which was judged as mostly opportunistic). Indeed, of all of the different political manifestos, feminist organization Osez le Féminisme! deemed only three as truly feminist (including proposals from Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo). The rest were judged as either “feminist-washing” (including Macron) or actually misogynist (both Le Pen and, no surprises, Zemmour).
From this year’s election, one might conclude that France is a little more representative than other countries when it comes to political parity. It is true that France now has an almost-healthy 39% of female (lower-chamber) parliamentarians (ranking 17th out of 193 countries); and that local (département or regional) councils have achieved quasi-parity at 50% and 47.9% of female Councillors respectively. But these impressive statistics have only been made possible through laws imposing quotas at certain levels of political representation which came into force in the last twenty years. Where no quotas apply, it’s a very different story – for example, only 16% of French Mayors are women, and the Presidents of local Councils are rarely female.
So although it is good news that President Macron nominated Elisabeth Borne as Prime Minister last week, we shouldn’t get too carried away. After all, Borne is only the second woman to occupy the role, some thirty years after Edith Cresson. This time round, the fiercest debate appears to be whether a female Prime Minister’s title should or should not be feminized to Première Ministre; and not whether a woman can do the job in the first place. Progress?
Kate is a gender equality and women’s rights consultant. British by nationality, she lives and works in France. She is passionate about equality in all forms, but especially women’s rights and SRHR, which are so often challenged, ignored, or repressed. When not working Kate tries to be a good mother, writes novels and poetry, and runs workshops on gender stereotypes in schools.