This article was first published by e-feminist.com on May 18th 2012
Remember 1997? Tony Blair had become the UK’s youngest Prime Minister and the first Labour Prime Minister in 18 years. Labour’s majority in the House of Commons included double the number of female MPs than had been elected in the 1992 general election. These women even had their own momentous nickname, ‘Blair’s Babes’, and all the spin doctors were telling us that this photo represented a new era in gender equality in British politics. It made us feel hopeful, as if we had been listened to and, most of all, happy with our new government. Looking at the photo of Hollande and the ‘Hollandettes’ it feels as if we could be right back in 1997.
So what’s the difference between these photos? The short answer is not much. Of course, France’s situation is slightly different; Hollande and Ayrault actively chose to include equal numbers of men and women in their government and not all of ‘Blair’s Babes’ became cabinet ministers. However, both Hollande and Blair’s photos aim to present the same cliched political message to nation, “We’re progressive! We like women too! Look how well we’re doing!”.
Understandably, feminists in France have questioned why it was necessary to emphasize the achievement of gender parity in a way which treats women as tokens. In an article entitled “The irritating photo”, Isabelle Germain asks why these highly qualified women are being treated like Hollande’s trophies. Just like the ‘Blair Babes’, Hollande’s female ministers have their own twee media nickname; the ‘Hollandettes’. Linguistically, the ‘Hollandettes’ are to Hollande what ‘Belibers’ are to the pop star Justin Beiber – relative to their male leader and their roles determined by his authority. Germain argues that this photo aims to set the right mood for the rest of Hollande’s term and keep the electorate sweet on Ayrault’s government. It’s as if Hollande is keeping a copy of this photo in his wallet to pull out in sticky political situations and say, “But look at this photo! This photo proves that I’m a good guy!”.
A sense that Hollande has done this out of necessity has crept in amongst feminist critics. In an article onEgalite Infos, the feminist academic Françoise Gaspard argues that Hollande set himself up during his campaign to commit to gender parity, when it wasn’t necessarily driven by his own personal beliefs. She also points out that gender parity in ministerial positions, no matter how symbolic, is still a long way from real power in strategic political positions. This is, of course, the thing that the political spin doctors don’t want the French electorate to hear. Any hint of insincerity could wreck the message of Hollande’s female-led publicity campaign and ultimately destroy any confidence he has earnt through this momentous gesture.
Considering that between 1962 and 1968 there were no female ministers at all in the French government, a lot of progress has been made in fifty years to finally achieve gender parity. However, it is clear that the place of women in French politics is still determined by their male leaders. In Hollande’s case it cannot be truly judged whether he is sincere in his feminist convictions. It can only hoped that his actions, no matter what their intentions, succeed in holding the door open for other women in French politics. Perhaps one day gender parity in government institutions will be so commonplace that it will not constitute a PR photo op.
17/05/2012: Influential French Women: Christiane Taubira
17/05/2012: Influential French Women: Najat Vallaud-Belkacem
16/05/2012: Hollande Delivers on Equality Promise