Wagering on France’s next president

“Ideas govern the world, or throw it into chaos.” – Auguste Comte

The global tide of populism continues to reverberate across much of Europe and North America, to a lesser extent. The centrist and relative newcomer to French politics, Emmanuel Macron, and the far-right and rather polarizing politician, Marine Le Pen, have both made it through to this Sunday’s run-off election to choose the next President of France.

Le Pen is controversial for many reasons. Her core principles are steeped in an anti-globalization, anti-immigration and anti-European Union mould and have found favour among a significant percentage of the French electorate. It can be argued that many French citizens are disillusioned with the traditional political parties and are quite fearful of the future.

The on-going political instability in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria, which has subsequently led to a refugee crisis, has provided much fuel to the notion of nationalism. It has nurtured a culture of France for the French. The recent attacks on Paris, as well as on other European capitals by terrorist groups, have also led to a growing spirit of nationalism throughout France and Europe.

Disturbingly, the uncertainty of the future has given rise in incidents of anti-Semitism not only in France but across much of Europe. This trend has become rather unsettling for Jewish communities in these countries, especially France which has the largest Jewish population in Europe at around 500, 000 strong.   

Origin of the EU

The European states began to unite in the 1950’s after catastrophic world wars. The formation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 was the first effort to coalesce European states in the 20th century. The EU came into being after the Maastricht Treaty, formally  the Treaty on European Union, was signed on February 7, 1992 by members of the European Community in Maastricht, Netherlands.

The EU currently is a unified trade and monetary body of 28 member countries. This number will reduce to 27, after the United Kingdom leaves following Brexit.  It is noteworthy that the EU eliminates all border control between members, as the Schengen Area guarantees free movement to those legally residing within its border.

The people of France are at a crossroads. The paths are clear: retreat and give in to fear and insularity or pursue the route of engagement and  have a meaningful global presence.

Gender and Politics

France has never had a female president. Some have posited the view that Le Pen’s rise in the National Front is as a consequence of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s founder, not having a male heir. Le Pen, by not having a brother, benefited from this fact. The world patiently awaits the results of Sunday’s poll to see whether or not she will create history.

Is Le Pen’s gender a liability in this presidential election? The culture in France is very much chauvinistic and driven by a sense of phallocentrism much more than in other EU countries.   France undoubtedly has a hyper-masculine culture steeped in patriarchy. The ego of the French male is not easily soothed and this unquestionably will prevent a significant number of men from supporting a female to become head of state.

France still has a very far way to go in breaking the class ceiling. Interestingly, all the leaders of the main political parties have urged their supporters to back Macron. Former US  President Barack Obama has also given his support to Macron to succeed Francois Hollande as the next president of France.

In spite of the comparison to the legendary Joan of Arc, Le Pen’s path to the presidency will take a miracle for her to overcome and defeat Macron. The National Front has had a history of anti-Semitism and racism and it also will be quite interesting to see how the intersection of race and religion affects the outcome of the presidential election.

It must be noted that France adopted gender equality rather late compared to her European counterparts. Additionally, France’s strong religious association to Roman Catholicism and the country’s focus on the family instead of the individual are factors which have contributed greatly to gender inequality. Female participation in politics still remains as a major concern with regards to gender equality.

According to data supplied by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), France has a 25.8 per cent female participation in politics. Despite having had a female Prime Minister in Edith Cresson, women have long been underrepresented in French politics. French women became eligible to vote in 1944. On June 28, 1999, Articles 3 & 4 of the French constitution were amended. The law promoting equal access to men and women to elected office was adopted on June 6, 2000.

It is rather ironic and unsettling that France lags behind her European neighbours regarding gender equality, despite having given the world feminist icons such as Simone de Beauvoir. French culture continues to resonate with a high degree of sexism and will not change anytime soon.  “Men are viewed here as a social group active in changing or maintaining the social inferiorisation of women, rather from the standpoint of recomposed masculine identity or forms of masculinity”. (Devreux 2007).

France’s political establishment has been hit hard by Macron, who is often compared to Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his youthfulness. Macron’s meteoric rise has been rather amazing.  His political party En Marche, formed last year, has generated a movement  which many believe will usher him into the Elysee Palace. There has been a rejection of traditional old style politics and this dismissal will be played out in many more elections to come; many more surprise presidents and prime ministers are lurking in the wings.

The world last year saw Donald Trump, a rather unconventional businessman turned politician, becoming president of the United States. As the world anxiously awaits the outcome of the French election, we are told not to wager on a female presidency. French society is divided and as such the next president will need to embark on a programme to try to mend fences and bridge the political divide after a bruising election.

The way forward for France must include a closer interpretation and implementation of Sustainable Development Goal number 5 which speaks to achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.  Marine Le Pen would have inspired an entire generation of girls not only in France but also the international community.

One’s gender should never be a barrier to any achievement especially in 2017. In the words of the French philosopher Voltaire, the true triumph of reason is that it enables us to get along with those who do not possess it.

Au Revoir!

(Wayne Campbell is a Jamaican educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues. Email: waykam@yahoo.com)

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