The French revolution was fought on the three principles of “liberté, égalité et fraternité” and yet despite almost two hundred and twenty years having elapsed, there has been little advancement within the domain of French politics where the power lies in the hands of men in suits who seemingly are the ones governing the country while women are seen as little more than tight skirts perched on their high Louboutin heels.
It cannot be said that France is a country that shuns scandals; however, the tone changed when former head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was brought to trial on the allegations of sexual assault made against him by a maid during his stay in a luxurious hotel suite in New York. This spectacular fall from grace seemed to point to a hidden chauvinist culture as opposed to an exposed private life and subsequently brought some unwanted attention on the role sexism plays in French politics today.
The best, or at least most infamous, case is the media portrayal of the ménage-a-trois in the Élysées Palace between Francois Hollande and the two women in his life. He is the man who won the presidential campaign on the back of his image as “Mr Normal” in contrast to the flashy lifestyle of the “Bling Bling president”, Nicholas Sarkozy, yet his private life has received almost as much attention as his policies where the media pitted his former partner of thirty years and the mother of his four children, Segolène Royal, against his current partner and “Paris Match” journalist, Valerie Trierweiler. The now infamous “Tweetgate” refers to the incident following Hollande’s victory when Trierweiler tweeted her support for Royal’s rival in the bid for a seat on the National Assembly at La Rochelle. Royal subsequently lost her seat, although the true loser was Trierweiller whose presence at the president’s side has been notably more discreet as she was forced to issue a public apology and has now been dubbed the “Rottweiler”.
Rather than being seen as a political endorsement, it was instead declared to be an ill-conceived move from a jealous and manipulative woman suffering from the “Rebecca syndrome”, a complex referring to the title of one Hitchcock film where the new wife lives in the shadows of her precedent.
It was no longer a case of women being denied a place in the political arena but one where women were portrayed as being rivals against each other despite both having had exceptionally brilliant careers in their respective fields.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that Hollande and Trierweiler are not married and as a consequence they cannot travel as a couple in countries where unmarried relations are viewed less favourably. Even Carla Bruni, the previous Première Dame has urged Trierweiler to marry in order to “simplify” matters. Bruni has recently come under fire for her comment on feminism, which she declared to VogueParis that the women of her generation never had a need for such a concept. The notion was that a woman in a relationship with a powerful man should play the supporting role of first lady like a second fiddle rather than demonstrate her worth as an equal. Whether Trierweiler will be forced to renounce her career and conform to the rules instead of being allowed the opportunity to make new ones will have to be seen.
The private life of another politician has made the front cover of newspapers where it has been claimed that the former minister for justice, Rachida Dati, who gave birth in 2009 yet refuses to name the child’s father allegedly had up to eight lovers around the time she fell pregnant. This salacious story is just another example of French misogyny, as the businessman Dati claims is the father of her child has essentially branded her a gold digger after his mutli-million euro fortune and has thus refused to take a paternity test. It is also claimed that after famously returning to work a mere five days after giving birth, she was actually attempting to pursue a man instead of being committed to her job. Rather than being celebrated for having broken conventions in terms of being female and from an ethnic minority, both of which are still a rare sight at the Élysées, the media has portrayed her as a vixen whose interests lay with fashion accessories rather than politics, which reflects the sexist view of women being frivolous in political matters and was detrimental in the promotion of female politicians.
The lives of male politicians has been well documented ranging from infidelities to orgies to secret families and while this traditionally has been part of the norm and kept under wraps, women do not receive the same treatment.
Hollande hopes to eradicate sexism through mandatory classes for his ministers who will be taught the differences between acceptable behaviour towards their female colleagues and behaviour that is deemed to be sexist such as the wolf whistles that follow female ministers wearing skin-tight skirts.
The DSK affair may have ended his career; however it did shed some light on the issues of stereotypes in French politics. The presence of women in government has grown from 19% to 27% under the Socialists yet this number is still a far cry from equal representation. The sex lives of men who have been caught by the public are usually followed by the blame being placed at the foot of the woman. DSK claimed he had been “set up” by his political enemies, as his aspirations to run in the presidential election were thwarted by what was perceived not as rape but merely as a “troussage de domestique”, a term used to describe affairs men of the aristocracy used to conduct with the servant girls. Even Hollande’s bad ratings have been linked to the lack of control he has had over his “outspoken girlfriend”.
Possibly one day France may have a President and a premier-homme, but until that time it is best for everyone to take those classes on sexism that Hollande has kindly offered.