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Tuesday, 28 May, 2002, 09:59 GMT 10:59 UK
Le Pen and his feminine side
One of the few French parties to come close to meeting a new law stipulating that half of the candidates in next month's elections are female is one which encourages women to stay at home and have more babies - Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front.
These are the first parliamentary elections to be held in France subject to the contentious "law of parity", which demands all parties either ensure that 50% of their candidates in any poll are women, or face financial penalties.
About 270 of National Front (FN) candidates are women, or 49% of all their candidates - almost as many as the female Socialist candidates (165 women or 36%) and those from President Jacques Chirac's right-wing UMP coalition (107 women or 19.6%) put together.
Social commentators have noted with interest that a party with policies which directly contradict feminist thought - including a ban on abortion - should be one of the few to meet the quota. But for the National Front candidates themselves it comes as no surprise.
"Our movement has confidence in women when other parties do not - it has welcomed us and encouraged us," said 25-year-old Alexandra Hardy, one of the youngest candidates standing in the campaign.
"Jean-Marie Le Pen believes in us," the student told BBC News Online.
Difference or equality
The parity law sparked a heated debate when it was put forward in early 2000, dividing French feminists into two camps.
Its aim was simple. Women, advocates of the law argued, were drastically underrepresented, both at the local and national levels of French politics. A parity law would redress the balance.
Proponents included the academic Sylviane Agacinski, wife of the then Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin.
Not to have such a law, she argued, ignored the fact that women were fundamentally different to men and needed their own specific representation.
But the position angered other feminists, who feared it set in stone difference rather than equality, and gave credence to the concept of femininity, something that women's rights campaigners had for decades sought to challenge.
Women should be chosen for political positions because of their capabilities, not their sex, argued philosophers such as Elisabeth Badinter, a vocal opponent of the law.
Political choices, she said, are not made on the basis of gender, she said. Women do not as a matter of course best represent women.
The female candidates of the National Front say they are firmly on the side of those forces which demanded parity, endorsing Ms Agacinski notion of difference.
"Women need to be represented by women," Nicole Aureau, an FN candidate standing in Burgundy, told BBC News Online. "Lots of things which concern women are decided by men, and that's not acceptable."
"We'll be representing the issues that are important to women: family, motherhood, and the protection of life."
The FN's policies for women are directly connected with the party's infamous attitudes towards immigration.
The reason why France has allowed in so many foreigners, the party argues, is because French women are not having enough babies to keep population figures healthy.
"It is therefore an imperative," reads the FN manifesto, "to launch a great pro-natal policy."
This would include banning abortion and paying women to stay at home to rear their children - those who had three or more would receive a full state pension.
Members of the government's Observatory for Parity between Men and Women chastise the main parties - and particularly the UMP - for failing to embrace the law on parity.
"The stakes are high, given the success of the National Front in the presidential elections, and the UMP has clearly decided that women are a risk. They would rather pay the penalty," Janine Mossuz-Lavau told BBC News Online.
But she has no words of praise for the far-right party that has sought to comply with the law.
"They think having women on the team will make them look less aggressive, less violent - that it will make them look like a peaceful, caring movement."
Ms Aureau firmly refutes the idea that women were picked out by the FN for political expediency, stressing that female candidates had themselves sought to participate in the movement, and had been welcomed.
But it remains to be seen whether the female FN candidates - with their pro-natal, anti-abortion message - will do better than their veteran leader in drawing more women to the party in next month's elections.
A breakdown of the vote from the first round of presidential elections, when Mr Le Pen scored his shock victory, shows that some 20% of male voters had opted for the far-right candidate, compared to just 14% of women.
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