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Mme la Presidente

01/17/07 12:00AM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) The French hold presidential elections this spring, and, for the first time in history, the winning candidate could be a woman. Commentator Mike Martin has been thinking that this might be a very good thing.

(MARTIN) There's been a growing malaise in France these past few years, a growing fear of globalization mixed with the feeling that France is somehow stuck in a rut. But lately there's been a politician who has stirred the masses and changed the political landscape. Her name is Segolene Royal, and she is the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party. This May, she may become the first woman president in the history of France.

If "Sego", as she's called, is elected President of France, it'll be a pretty big deal. After all, French women only got the right to vote a little more than sixty years ago, after World War II. And despite efforts to get more women candidates in France, politics there is still male-dominated, or machiste as the French say.

Still, the law for political parity in France is pretty radical. It was passed in 2000 after an amendment to the French constitution, and it requires political parties to submit lists with equal numbers of male and female candidates. If the list isn't balanced, the party is fined, or its list can even be excluded from the election. The law is extremely far-reaching because it guarantees gender equality in actual outcomes, not just in opportunity.

And yet, even though the law has allowed more French women into politics, this reform hasn't changed things that much in seven years. While women make up fifty-one percent of the population of France, they still constitute only eleven percent of its mayors and around fourteen percent of its legislative branch. (This is even worse than the U.S., which comes in around sixteen percent, tied with Turkmenistan and Zimbabwe.) Sure, there's been a woman Prime Minister in France, but only for about six months, way back in 1991.

So that's why a Mme. la Presidente would mean so much. If Sego comes to power and joins current trailblazers like Angela Merkel of Germany, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Ellen Sirleaf of Liberia, Portia Simpson-Miller of Jamaica, Han Myung-sook of South Korea, and our own Nancy Pelosi, it will arguably make a bigger difference than any quota ever could. A Segolene Royal presidency will signal a new era in France.

Last summer, when the French tabloids ran vacation pictures of Mme Royal in a bikini, some predicted the end of her rise in the polls, but it had just the opposite effect. Maybe the French think sex appeal is as important as gravitas, or maybe they're just beyond that stuff.

It's too soon to say if this new generation of women heads of state and government leaders will change the history of the world, but it's great to see so many countries finally using more of their human resources - not just men - for key positions in government. And, without counting organizations, women have won a full third of the Nobel Peace Prizes awarded in the last fifteen years.

Maybe that's what the French poet Louis Aragon meant when he wrote, "Woman is the future of man".

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.

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