Women on the French left: political heavyweights? or mothers, daughters, and ‘potiches’?

The ascendancy of Martine Aubry as a main Socialist Party candidate for next year’s Presidential elections and the rise of Eva Joly to Presidential candidate for the Green Party tell one story of the success of women on the French left. The response to the DSK arrest and Segolene Royal’s treatment by the party elephants, however, shows a darker side to the French left’s treatment of women in politics.
Heather McRobie
14 July 2011

As the race for the 2012 French Presidential elections begins, female politicians are at the forefront across the political landscape. Announcing her decision to run as the Socialist Party (PS) candidate in the party’s primary, Martine Aubry – the PS’s First Secretary – is now widely considered a Presidential candidate forerunner for the PS, neck-and-neck with Francois Hollande in the polls. This week fraud prosecutor Eva Joly won the primary race to be Presidential candidate for the Greens-Ecology-Europe party. In the international arena, Christine Lagarde became arguably the most powerful woman in the world as chief of the IMF. Whilst left-leaning feminists might hang-wring over celebrating the appointment of a woman to a neo-liberal institution that’s done its fair share to feminise global poverty and entrench global inequalities, Lagarde’s at least consistent in her criticism of the ‘macho’ culture of politics and business, and determined to secure better female representation in boardrooms (a new French law states that by 2017 company boards must comprise 40% women). Moving further to the right, Marine le Pen has taken over from father as the candidate for the xenophobic Front National. Many fear that, as Marine appeals to younger voters more than her father did, the FN may make gains in next year’s elections.

Aubry, Joly, Lagarde and Marine le Pen together signal a national political landscape in which women are well-represented, and if the Front National get through to the second round as they did in 2002, voters may find themselves in the unprecedented position of choosing between two female Presidential candidates. And there are indications of wider support for more women in politics: in June, left-wing newspaper Liberation ran with a front page of six prominent French women in politics with the headline “marre de (sick of) machos”. Feminist groups like La Barbe – who use direct action tactics like gatecrashing high-level political and economic events wearing fake beards to protest against male-dominated and macho institutions – have made recently made international headlines.

But gender equity in the political sphere is still a distant hope, as La Barbe’s continued protests attest. Women are still under-represented in French politics, making up only 18.5% of the Parliament. Though the constitution was amended in 1999 and electoral law revised in 2000 to require the nomination of equal numbers of male and female candidates on party lists or else face a considerable fine, many parties – including Sarkozy’s UMP – still prefer to pay millions of Euros than institute 50-50 party candidate lists.

It could also be argued that women are also structurally disadvantaged by the stagnant traditions of the political class’s composition, which – with the notable exception of Sarkozy – are still drawn largely from Les Grandes Ecoles, the elite higher education institutions that - particularly since the 1980s – have lost their earlier role in encouraging social mobility through education, now instead entrenching lines of privilege by drawing their intake in large part from elite areas of Paris. The under-representation of women in Les Grandes Ecoles feeds up directly into a male-dominated political class.

More obviously, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Martine Aubry became a forerunner in the Socialist Party primaries only because the previous main candidate was arrested for alleged attempted rape, and Christine Lagarde is only one of the most powerful women in the world today because the last IMF chief is on trial for violence against a woman, with many accounts of his previous harassment of women now emerging in the previously taciturn French media. Surely a surge of high-profile women to the front of political life caused by an attempted rape trial has to be at least a little bittersweet?

The sexist commentary on the ‘affaire DSK’ in much of the French media gave one the impression of a chauvinistic witch-hunt: the alleged victim’s breasts, “nice ass”, face, and possible HIV status have all been degradingly commented upon, not only sending the erroneous message that sexual violence is linked to desirability, but telling other sexual assault survivors that making a complaint against a powerful man will give the media carte blanche to publicly humiliate you. The presumption of DSK’s innocence amongst the PS faithful – most notably Bernard-Henri Levy’s defence of DSK as a “friend of women” who should not be treated like an ‘ordinary’ suspect – gave foreign observers the impression of both gross elitism by the French nomenklatura (there was a hint of ‘how could a mere chambermaid bring down such a great man?’) and a disturbing willingness to turn a blind eye to repeated allegations of sexual violence and harassment. For their part, many French were shocked by the ‘perp walk’ – a defendant in hand-cuffs paraded in front of the press is largely alien to French media – and what was seen as the prejudice of ‘trial by media’ in America, destroying DSK’s reputation before the case had been tried in court.

There are many explanations for the differences in attitude towards the relationship between the public and private spheres in French and American media (in shorthand: where the USA speaks of the ‘right to know’, the French speak of the ‘right to privacy’). But the French media’s disdain for prurience (Le Canard Enchaine, the satirical weekly, still asserts that “news always stops at the bedroom”) was more coherent during, for instance, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, than in an allegation of sexual violence that seemed – now the ‘privacy’ has been broken and more women have come forward – to indicate that the media turned a blind eye to earlier signs that DSK assaulted women. Reports that Strauss-Kahn’s team had pressured journalist Tristane Banon to remove a chapter from her book where she referred to DSK’s alleged assault of her – combined with the fact that DSK’s name was ‘bleeped out’ when Banon more openly discussed this on television in 2007 – looks less like a defence of the ‘right to privacy’ and more like a silencing. And in their coverage of DSK’s trial, with the possible exception of Liberation, the French media’s assertion of the sanctity of the private sphere and ‘innocent until proven guilty’ begins to look less like the Mitterand-era position that policies are more important than the personal lives of politicians, and suspiciously like deference to the powerful men on whose continued good favour journalists’ careers may depend.

But while much has been said of the French media’s problematic reaction to the DSK trial, what of the PS itself? The anecdote that Tristane Banon’s mother, regional Socialist Party official Anne Mansouret, dissuaded her daughter from filing charges in 2002 because DSK had a promising future ahead of him is revealing. Like the scene in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom where Patty’s mother, a Democrat politician, encourages her daughter not to seek justice for the fact she has been raped by the son of another prominent Democrat supporter, Mansouret dissuading her daughter seems to indicate that, in the PS, the elephants – and they’re male elephants, almost without exception – are beyond reproach. Paris attorneys specialising in defending victims of sexual violence have recently commented that they have “piles” of complaints against DSK, but Time magazine, in their report of the DSK trial, has suggested that DSK may have been abetted by the fact that his behaviour was amongst his PS ideological fellow-travellers and their social circles, as the case of Tristane Banon indicates.

The unresolved issue of the arenas of the public and private spheres that comes up whenever an allegation is made against a powerful male politician repeats itself in macrocosm for the Socialist Party as a whole: should we care how the party treats its women in private, if it presents itself as ‘pro-women’ in public? Socialist Party policies on women would be the envy of many American feminists, with generous maternity leave and stated commitment to equality for women in France. But does this mean we ought to turn a blind eye to the revelations in recent months both of the conduct of certain Socialist Party politicians, and the attitudes of the party faithful who rushed to DSK’s defence?

For proof of the insidious power of the party mandarins, and the underside of the French left’s treatment of women, you need look no further than the treatment Segolene Royal received from the PS in 2006 and 2007. “Who will look after the children?” was the quip former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius is reported to have sneeringly commented when he heard that Royal, a mother of four children, would run for the PS Presidential candidacy – indicating that, for all their ‘pro-women policies’, misogyny was alive and well amongst PS heavyweights.

In fact , comparing ‘affaire DSK’ and Royal’s 2007 Presidential bid, it’s interesting to note how those now concerned with the sanctity of the ‘private sphere’ didn’t seem to have the same misgivings about using Royal’s personal life against her. Could it be that the right to privacy is, rather, a man’s right to do whatever he wants in private? The media obsessively covered Royal’s clothing and ‘style’, making much of her ‘soft’, ‘feminine’ approach, but this was then used by PS heavyweights to depict her as frivolous, with one senior party member dismissing the 2007 Presidential elections a “beauty pageant”. Even Jospin, whose defeat in 2002 was so bad for the PS that you’d think he might have been nervous to criticise other PS Presidential candidates, complained about her lack of grassroots party support, even though – much as her party’s seniors loathed her – she was the only PS candidate who stood a chance of defeating Sarkozy.

But in by-passing traditional party support in favour of seeking support from would-be PS voters, Royal seemed to underestimate the impact her own party’s criticism would have on her public persona. By the time the televised Presidential debates came round, and Sarkozy was telling Royal that she got angry “very easily” the narrative of Royal’s Presidential bid was already written, largely thanks to criticism by her own ‘side’: she could have been a contender, if only she hadn’t been so emotional, vacillating, and feminine – her stylishness a symptom of her problematic ‘style over substance’. Charisma and strength weren’t seen as incompatible in Sarkozy’s public persona, but a female politician – the commentary seemed to say –could only be one or the other: ‘masculine’ and ‘charmless’ like Aubry and Angela Merkel, or ‘feminine’ and insufficiently ‘substantive’ like Royal.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t problems with Royal’s campaign – her ideological incoherence and mish-mash of policies on crime and social security were picked apart, as well as her confusing criticism of the 35-hour working week (untouchable in Socialist Party orthodoxy) from a worker’s rights perspective. But in retrospect this criticism of Royal’s ‘flip-flopping’ seems less fair given the ideological incoherence of the whole political landscape in the 2007 election, as both Sarkozy and Royal self-consciously drew upon a Blairite third-way approach. Sarkozy, however, at least didn’t have his ideological incoherence and ‘style over substance’ unpicked by his own party to the same extent as Royal, allowing him to present his departures from UMP orthodoxies instead as ‘game-changing’ and innovative.

This time (with senior PS figures calling for unity and – in the wake of DSK’s arrest – an ‘amicable’ primary campaign) it seems that the PS titans will lend their support to Martine Aubry if she becomes the party’s Presidential candidate, and she could thus avoid Royal’s fate. But it’s interesting to note that Aubry, the daughter of Jacques Delors, could be running against Marine le Pen. Aside from the concern that growing Front National support signals for xenophobia in France, it’s as though women in French politics are rising to the fore less because of progress in gender equity and more due to the hereditary dynasties of the entrenched political elites: political heavyweights can be women, in the absence of sons to take their fathers’ places.

The misogynistic treatment of Royal in 2007 hasn’t been forgotten. Francois Ozon’s 2011 film Potiche references it directly in his light-comedy depiction of a ‘trophy wife’ or ‘potiche’ who runs for mayor. Catherine Deneuve, who plays the ‘trophy wife’ in Potiche, has said that Ozon was inspired by Segolene Royal, and the sexist treatment she received. But Potiche ends on an ambiguous and cloyingly sentimental note, with Deneuve, elected as mayor, telling the townspeople “I want to be the mother to you all.” It seems even a defence of Royal and her style of politics often turns into a celebration of women solely as ‘mothers’, as the gentler, fairer sex.

Of course, the PS isn’t synonymous with the French left, and it isn’t the only progressive party that could see off Sarkozy in the elections next year. In particular, Eva Joly, with her long record of fighting corruption and signalling a desire to move away from ‘spin’, looks set to improve support for the Greens. And Aubry’s rise to prominence and PS figures insisting the primaries will be amicable shows the PS may have learnt from 2007. But while elder statesmen of the party are happy to undermine their female forerunners like Royal, or silence the women who would speak out against the ‘private’ misogyny of party mandarins, the shadow of DSK’s trial – and of misogyny – hangs over the political landscape.




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