Despite its much-hailed equal rights laws and a woman leading the presidential campaign, the realm of French politics still remains one of the most sexist in all of Europe. Only 13 percent of French parliamentary seats are held by women and the prospects for swift change are poor.
It wouldn't be far off the mark to say that 2006 has been the year of the woman in France.
Women are in more political positions of power these days than ever before. Ségolène Royal has thrown her hat into the ring in the presidential campaign, there are six female ministers in the cabinet of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, and the Defense Ministry is even led by a woman.
Nevertheless, when it comes to distributing positions of great responsibility, women are still neglected in the country of liberty, egality and fraternity. Equal rights legislation passed by the government in 2000 did lead to greater "feminization" of politics at the local and regional levels and at the European Parliament, but women are still dramatically underrepresented in France's parliament and within the country's chief political parties.
Despite all the talk about equal rights, women still represent a mere 13 percent of the seats in the French parliament, the Assemblée Nationale, putting France at 25th place in Europe for the percentage of women in parliament.
The country is seeking to change the situation through additional legislation, but previous attempts have all failed. In mid-December, the Senate presented draft legislation that would require communities of more the 3,500 residents, as well as France's regions, to have parity between men and women in their political bodies. At the national level, the bill would also sharpen penalties for political parties who fail to have an equal number of men and women on their lists of candidates for parliamentary elections.
So far, however, laws have had little impact on gender equality in French politics. The conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, also a presidential contender, was forced to pay a fine of €4.26 million ($5.62 million) in 2002 for not having an equal number of women on its candidate list. Even the left-wing Socialists broke the law and were forced to pay €1.65 million in fines. Indeed, the Greens were the only party to play by the gender rules.
The atmosphere of sexism isn't terribly surprising: France's major parties today remain bastions of male power. In both the Socialist party and the UNP, only about one-third of members are women. The Communist Party fares only slightly better, with about 40 percent female membership.