Charming Carme Spain's Defense Minister Makes Her Mark in a Macho World

Carme Chacón, Spain's first female defense minister, made headlines in 2008 when she took office while seven months pregnant. Two years later on, she is popular within the military and is seen as the great hope of Zapatero's Socialists.

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Miquel is in command until a quarter to nine in the morning. Then Carme Chacón picks up her son, walks to the elevator and takes it from her apartment on the 11th floor of the Spanish Defense Ministry down to the garage.

When she reaches the garage, an armored Audi A8, its engine running, is already waiting for her, as are a female bodyguard and Chacón's adjutant. "The boss is coming," says Colonel Elena Carrión, 44, glancing at the elevator floor indicator. Then she tucks Chacón's thick briefcase and a stack of daily newspapers into the trunk of the car.

Chacón, 39, a petite blonde, is Spain's first female defense minister. She is in charge of more than 128,000 soldiers and a budget of over €9 billion ($12.1 billion). On this day, she is on her way to the Torrejón air force base to look at a new fighter-bomber. But the first item on the minister's agenda on this cold March morning in Madrid is to take her son Miquel to kindergarten.

Miquel, a serious-looking blonde boy who will be two in May, is growing up in the ostentatious Defense Ministry building, where he waves to members of his mother's staff. A pragmatist by nature, Chacón chose to live in the ministry, which has its own kindergarten, so as not to waste time traveling between her home and her workplace.

Visits to the Kindergarten

She leaves the garage, walks with her son across the large courtyard, tottering in her high heels, and disappears behind a tall metal fence. She makes a point of coming to the kindergarten as often as possible, between appointments and before leaving on trips, "to give Miquel a kiss" or to pick him up in the evening.

"I manage as best I can, just like all women who have to make time for their families and a job," says Chacón, sitting on the back seat of her official car. "I suffer when I have to be away from him for days at a time." But, she adds, all working mothers have the same problem.

The politician likes to portray herself as one among many, as a mother who happens to work, nothing more. But it was far from normal for Spain when the Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero appointed the successful member of parliament for Barcelona as his defense minister after winning reelection in April 2008. Images of a heavily pregnant Chacón reviewing an honor guard upon taking office, while the commanders of the armed forces saluted her, quickly circled the globe. She even made it onto the cover of the New York Times.

The prime minister spoke of an educational project when he placed the young Socialist, in her seventh month of pregnancy, before the troops. A few diehards protested, saying that entrusting the defense of Spain to a pregnant Catalan was an "insult to the armed forces." When she promptly ordered access to sports, recreational and dating sites on the Internet blocked during working hours, there was grumbling in the barracks. But the commotion has died down by now.

'Gender Is Irrelevant'

"The military brass have accepted me," says Chacón after two years in office, noting that the soldiers have behaved in an "absolutely professional" way. This is also because rank is paramount in the military, says her adjutant Elena Carrión, a former attorney. "Gender is irrelevant," she notes. Nevertheless, she and Chacón have always been the subject of "close scrutiny."

The soldiers like Chacón, who doesn't even try to act like a member of the military and isn't afraid of appearing feminine. Men in their blue airman uniforms stand at attention, their chins held high, when she arrives at the air force base. The minister is wearing a tight brown pants suit with jingling gold earrings and high-heeled shoes. In an icy wind, she climbs into the cockpit of a fighter-bomber, smiles at the pilot and shakes everyone's hand. "She treats everyone just as politely, regardless of rank," says Carrión.

This fragile-looking blonde is a perfectionist, the members of her staff groan, saying: "She has character." They also point out that she likes to make decisions, and likes to do so on her own. On the day of her return from six weeks of maternity leave, she replaced the entire military leadership, against the advice of her predecessor, with unconventional officers, ignoring the military's promotion regulations in the process.

Chacón places absolute trust in a handful of staff members, such as her secretary, who she brought with her from her previous post as minister of housing. She edits her own speeches, which are written by a political adviser. She reads dossiers untiringly in her office, in the car or on planes. She usually skips official dinners.

Even conservatives, like member of parliament Celia Villalobos, have few complaints about Chacón, except perhaps that she uses her appearances in the parliament to boost her image or that she is "dogmatic." But no one questions her abilities.

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