Parity and quotas in politics
Professeure de Science politique

(Université Lumière Lyon 2 - Triangle)

While inequality between women and men continues to be a structuring principle of the social order as a whole, the world of politics would appear to exclude women to a particular degree. Though often denied political citizenship, women have progressively won the right to vote1. But throughout the world it is still harder for women to reach elected office than it is for men. Certain pioneering figures have indeed reached the highest office of head of state, such as Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, Helen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia, and Michelle Bachelet in Chili. But in (nearly) all countries the proportion of women in parliaments (since these are the only figures that can be used to compare countries) stands way below 50 %, the approximate sex ratio in most countries.

According to figures published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), in 2018 only three countries had a higher proportion of women than men elected to their lower house (63.3 % in Rwanda and 53 % in Bolivia and Cuba). For the 191 other countries surveyed, the proportion of men elected to lower houses is always higher than that of women. On this ranking France came 16rd in 2018, with 38,8 % of women in the French national assembly. In the first quarter of 2017, France came 63rd, with only 25,8 % of women in this assembly.

But as observed by Réjane Sénac, the issue of equal access to the public realm for men and women has been on international organizations’ agenda for over a quarter of a century2. In France, measures to encourage “equal access for men and women to elected offices and positions”, as specified in article 1 of the constitution, were enshrined over fifteen years ago. In 2008 this was extended to positions of social and professional responsibility (see the box on how French parity legislation has changed over time).

The equal access policy – based internationally on the grounds that if the proportion of women in representative bodies increases, so will the proportion of women voting, resulting in improvements to their condition – has resulted in gender quotas progressively being introduced in half of the world’s states. Although this policy has delivered visible progress in terms of political representation, academic studies have found little conclusive evidence that it has resulted in any improvement to the condition of women in the world, or even to their greater involvement in the public sphere.

As applied in France, and despite the original form taken there (“parity” policy), the gender quota policy has revealed the limits to policies that seek to change the implicit rules of the political contest, even though the idea of “parity” now acts as a lever for greater equality. Parity rules have not negated the deepest principles governing political recruitment, and have even tended to naturalize differences between the sexes.

“Quotas” as a lever for political equality worldwide?

At the UN conference in Beijing in 1995, the need to act in favor of gender equality sanctioned the idea that pro-active, legally based policies were amongst the most effective ways of encouraging female-male equality in society as a whole. These provisions were applied to all fields (health, education, and so on), and progressively implemented using the principle of gender mainstreaming, which consists in injecting pro-equality measures into all public policies3. Although seats of power (and political bodies) are not the only spheres in need of reform, the 189 countries attending the Peking conference made transforming political recruitment one of their priorities.

Conférence de l’ONU à Beijing en 1995

Conference of the UNO in Beijing in 1995.

The idea that having more women in decision-making places would improve the condition of women generally won very extensively support in parts of English-speaking academia, particularly amongst feminist scholars. As the American academic Ellen Boneparth explained in 1984, after the feminist combats of the 1970s pursued by activist organizations, by the mid-1980s their demands needed to be translated into public policy, and thus taken up by parliamentary and governmental arenas4. The idea was very simple. If more women acquired decision-making power (and were involved in legislating or devising norms more generally), then women’s cause would necessarily progress in society as a whole. Since Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s pioneering article on “critical mass”, the idea has become widespread that the presence of women in major decision-making bodies – government and parliament – would broadly increase the effectiveness of public policies, and equality policies in particular5. This approach has sparked many controversies over what corresponds to critical mass (30 %? 50 %?), without the issue ever being settled. The debate continues today, and while studies of state feminism, especially in France, show that more equal structures do indeed cause issues relating to female-male equality to be placed on the political agenda, they often produce, and reproduce, a traditional gender order. Here as elsewhere, the issue of how to assess public policy and detect its pernicious effects is a major question, and one that is hard to answer. Furthermore, opponents of this theory point out that the great feminist laws of the 1970s in France, such as the 1967 Neuwirth Law on contraception, or the 1974 Veil on abortion, were passed when women were very much in the minority in the French National Assembly.

Manifestation pour la contraception et l'avortement
Discours de Simone Veil, AN, 26 novembre 1974

Mobilisation for the contraception and the abortion, 1976 – Simone Veil defends the law on the abortion in the National Assembly, on November 26th, 1974.

“No woman resorts willingly to the abortion”, Simone Veil, speech of November 26th, 1974 in the National Assembly.

A greater proportion of women in decision-making political bodies was supposed to act as an example and/or produce affinities encouraging greater female involvement in politics. This was to occur in voting and in political movements more generally (such as political parties and trade unions). Studies on women’s political participation in France and most developed countries showed that, from the end of the war up until the 1980s, women tended to vote less than men, and were less represented in political parties, trade unions, and associations (with differences, of course, depending upon the field in question)6. But the idea here was that if more women stood for election, not only would it encourage women to vote, it would also spur them to become politically active. Increasing the visibility of female political representatives was to lead to greater female political involvement at all levels, thanks to a sort of “trickle down effect”, enabling their interests to be more fully taken into account in the public sphere.

Lastly, it should be noted that female-male equality has progressively been taken up as a criterion of democratization and “good governance”. Certain countries and international organizations have even made states’ willingness to promote equality a criterion for development aid. This goes some way towards explaining, for example, why Rwanda heads the IPU ranking. Equally, promoting this type of policy is a way of making a good international showing, even if the legislative or constitutional measures are not always applied. Thus pro-active measures have been adopted in many countries specifically to increase the proportion of women in politics. Réjane Sénac, in her overview of parity mentioned earlier, examines the strategies used in various countries to implement quota policies. She makes a distinction between three ways of implementing gender quotas around the world, in accordance with studies produced by EU bodies, particularly the quota project7.

In a first group of countries, gender quotas are imposed by legislation (by law or the constitution). In Europe, for example, this is the case for Italy, Belgium, and Portugal, and in Latin America for Costa Rica and Argentina (the first country to adopt this type of measure in 1993). In 2015, the quota project reckoned that fifty four countries had measures enshrined in law or their constitution to increase women’s access to elected office. In these fifty four countries, on average a quarter of parliamentarians were women.

In a second group (twenty three in all according to the quota project), seats are reserved for women, as is the case for example in India, Morocco, and Pakistan8. In these countries about one fifth of parliamentarians on average were women.

In a third group of countries, quotas are imposed by political parties themselves (as in Scandinavian democracies for example), or both by law and in accordance with the statutes of certain parties (such as the Peronist Partido Justicialista in Argentina).

Gender quotas around the world

Gender quotas Database.

These quota policies are often backed up with financial support, or sanctions, intended to encourage parties – as the main pool of candidates and selecting body – to present women candidates. For example, under French law a portion of public funding for political parties may be withheld if they do not present the required number of women. Alternatively, in Burkina Faso, parties striving to encourage and promote women candidates are allocated more funding.

English-language scholarship has assessed how effective each of these various incentive policies are. Drude Dahlerup and Lenita Freidenvall thus distinguish between, on the one hand, countries such as Scandinavian ones, where there have been early and regular increases in the proportion of women (incremental track), often without any legally binding measures (relying instead on voluntary quotas applied by parties), and, on the other, countries (in Africa, South America, and Europe) where legal quotas and reserved seats have resulted in a sudden jump in the proportion of women (fast track)9.

Données sur la présence des femmes dans les parlements

Regional averages of the women in parliaments, on 1995 and 2018.

To see the whole report, consult the site of the Interparliamentary Union.

While it is possible to measure progress in female parliamentary representation using international databases, these do not allow for precise analysis of debates surrounding the introduction of such legislation, or enable us to measure the effects, or effectiveness, of any given measure10. In order to understand the effects of gender quotas it is not enough to observe the increase (or decrease) in the number of women elected to parliament. We need to fine-tune the analysis if we are to understand the issues presiding over the introduction of quota laws to attain the target of parity, together with the real effects of such measures. We shall do this by looking at the case of France.

Parity: a unique and radical solution?

France is an exception in various ways. It is the country with the longest gap between the introduction of universal male suffrage, in 1848, and genuinely universal suffrage (both male and female), which was decreed by ordinance in 1944 and implemented in 1945 – a lag of nearly a century11. In addition to this, France is also a country where politics has remained closed, more so than Germany for example, which has a higher level of female representation in politics despite the model of the male breadwinner still dominating there12. This is counterintuitive given that French state feminism has been fairly effective, resulting in comparatively favorable legislation to help women reconcile their professional and private lives, and a rate of employment above the EU average13.

If we look in greater detail at the place of women in the electoral system, what is striking is the historically low levels of female political representation, irrespective of the indicators used. Up until the application of the law on parity, only 12 % of the French National Assembly was women. This low level of representation in the lower house is even more accentuated once one factors in the implicit hierarchy of the political position. Thus prior to the application of the first measures on parity, less than 33 % of municipal councilors were women, but less than 11 % were mayors; 47.6 % of regional councilors were women, but only 10.8 % were general councilors – a position that may be serve as a springboard into national politics; 43.6 % of MEPs were women, but only 10.8 % of MPs and 5.6 % of senators14.

Premières femmes élues à l'AN

Exhibition organized in homage to the first thirty three French deputies, elected on October 21st, 1945.

Several suggestions have been put forward to explain why France lags behind. The first focuses on electoral regulations, particularly the system of single-member constituencies for electing members of parliament, and the fact that individuals may hold multiple offices. It is argued that these rules do not encourage turnover amongst politicians, making it harder for women to access the most prized political offices. The second explanation relates to political parties’ monopoly on selecting candidates. It is pointed out that the low number of female activists reduces the pool of potential candidates for various elected positions, especially in the absence of any internal “lobby” for women, unlike in certain parties in Germany for example. Contrary to other countries (such as in Québec and Canada in North America for example), the vast majority of feminists from the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF) have refused to stand for election and occupy the “representative” political realm to change things from the inside15. Once again, the pool of candidates from associative movements, and particularly feminist movements, one could potentially expect has not in fact transpired. These various points go some way towards explaining the low level of female political representation, though there are also other reasons for the low proportion of women on collective bodies. Still, these factors have helped champion the idea that a pro-active policy based on explicit changes to the rules of political contest could increase the number of women in politics.

After many debates, which we shall now briefly examine, France opted to introduce an original gender quota policy based on “parity”, targeting 50 % representation per gender. The idea of quotas was discussed in the 1970s and 1980s. But it was in the early 1990s that calls for a “parity” policy really took off, with the publication of Françoise Gaspard, Anne Legall, and Claude Servan Schreiber’s Au pouvoir citoyennes, followed by the “Manifesto of 577 people for parity” published in the November 19, 1993 issue of Le Monde (signed by 289 women and 288 men)16. These initial public declarations were followed three years later by another text, this time published in the June 6, 1996 issue of L’Express, under the title “Manifesto of 10 people for parity” signed by ten women, from left and right, having held high elected office. Although calls for parity remained a “cause without a movement”, as Laure Bereni has aptly put it, the wide range of feminist figures and organizations rallying to this cause gradually imposed the idea that the statutes needed altering if there was to be a change in political behavior leading towards greater equality17.

At the time there was spirited debate on how to achieve this, and on the justifications for and philosophical underpinnings of the parity law. It concentrated on the compatibility between a quota policy and French universalism, on the compatibility between equality and parity, and on ways of thinking of political representation as mirroring society18. Even though mobilization was low-key and, as Laure Bereni observes, employed “a discreet set of actions”, calls for parity emerged as a major issue during the 1995 presidential campaign, resulting in the first legal step when the constitution was revised in 1999, followed by the passing of the “parity” law in June 2000. Parity henceforth became a low-cost instrument on both left and right for modernizing public life and reversing disenchantment with politics. Women were thus allowed to enter politics thanks to their difference, and because they were going to “do politics differently”, bringing their (supposedly) “gender-specific” qualities to politics. Parity was viewed by many political actors as an opportunity to reconnect citizens with their representatives, as a way of remedying the crisis in representative democracy, for which the increasing number of people who either did not vote or else who voted for the far-right Front National was cited as evidence. Framing the debate in this manner had consequences for how future candidates and politicians were recruited, as well as on the inertia in female political representation nearly 20 years after the first parity measures had been introduced19.

In January 25th, 2000: members of parliament examine the bill tending to favor the equal access of the women and the men to the electoral mandates and to the elective offices.

Changes to “parity” legislation over time


Change to the constitution on July 8, 1999: article 3 of the 1958 Constitution was changed to read the law “shall promote equal access for men and women to elected office”, and article 4 that “political groups and parties shall help implement this principle”.


Law of June 6, 2000: obliges political parties to field an equal number of women and men for elections that are based on a list system with:

- strict male/female alternation on lists for single-round proportional representation elections for the European Parliament and French Senate,

- parity by tranche of six candidates for two-round elections for regional and municipal councils (for towns of over 3500 inhabitants).

For parliamentary elections the law was based on inducement, with funding docked for parties that ignored parity rules.


Law of January 31, 2007: imposes strict female-male alternation for lists for municipal councilors (in towns of over 3500 inhabitants) and makes parity obligatory for regional and municipal executives (for constituencies with over 3500 inhabitants). It increases the financial penalty on parties and introduced “mixed tickets” for elections for departmental councilors.


Constitutional reform of July 23, 2008: altered article 1 and extended the obligation of equality to “social and professional positions of responsibility”.


Law of January 27, 2011: the Copé-Zimmermann law provides for the progressive increase of the number of women on the board of directors of large companies.


Law of March 12, 2012: the Sauvadet law introduces quotas encouraging the appointment of women to senior management positions in the public sector, to executive boards, to supervisory boards or their equivalent in public administrative establishments, recruitment panels, selection committees, and social dialogue committees.


Law of July 22, 2013: Fioraso law imposes female-male alternation in governing bodies for academic and research institutions.


Law of May 17, 2013: reforms the electoral system for departmental councilors, municipal councilors, and community councilors, henceforth subject to the principle of female-male alternation.

Departmental councilors are now elected by majority vote for a pair comprising one man and one woman for each canton. The number of cantons has thus been halved. Departmental executives must also respect parity. Previously half of the representatives were replaced every three years, whereas now all representatives are replaced every six years.


Law of August 4, 2014 for real equality between women and men: the state, regional and local authorities, and their public establishments implement a policy for equality between women and men, using an integrated approach. They ensure assessment of all their actions. The policy for equality between women and men includes in particular:

- prevention and protection actions to combat violence against women […];

- actions to boost the combat against the prostitution system;

- actions to prevent and combat sexist stereotypes;

- actions to ensure women control their sexuality via access to contraception and voluntary termination of pregnancy;

- actions to combat precariousness amongst women;

- actions seeking to guarantee professional and wage equality and gender balance within professions;

- actions to encourage better work-life balance and sharing of parental responsibilities;

- actions to encourage equal access for women and men to elected offices and positions, as well as to professional and social responsibilities;

- actions seeking to guarantee equal treatment between women and men, equal access to cultural and artistic production and creation, and the dissemination of their works;

- actions to increase public awareness of French and international research on the social construction of gendered roles.

The constitutional reform of 1999 sparked extensive debate, as to a lesser extent did the initial law of June 6, 2000. Despite the surrounding controversy, subsequent stricter “equality” laws and their attendant symbolic public policies (such as policies to target harassment in public spaces, or to increase awareness of gender stereotyping in cultural products, activities, and at school) have resulted in these questions being definitively placed on the political agenda. Politicians seem to have progressively integrated rules seeking to introduce greater equality across various sectors in the social sphere. After political assemblies, it was the turn of companies, examining boards for public-sector recruitment, and sports federations to be progressively subject to “parity” rules, in accordance with the August 2014 law. Parity is thus no longer simply a matter of quota policies, and has instead become a political principle. As pointed out in reports by the High Council for Female-Male Equality (Haut conseil à l’égalité femmes-hommes HCEfh), parity is both “a tool and an end-goal – the equal sharing of decision-making and representative power between women and men. It is required as a matter of justice and democracy”. Rules pertaining to the politics have also been tightened up. And while in 2001 politicians, most of whom were men, had misgivings about the difficulty in recruiting women, those drawing up candidate lists nowadays (still mainly men) appear convinced that these reforms were right, and approve of them. Nowadays there is fairly broad consensus that “parity” is a good thing.

But has this repeated tightening up of the law upset the implicit rules of politics, as was the intent? Has the increase in the number of women in political assemblies (including those not subject to parity norms) altered the principles governing political recruitment? Is politics still a male world despite the number of female politicians?

Variable-speed increases to the number of women in politics

If we look solely at the number of women in various political assemblies, then parity laws have clearly resulted in progress. Although no institution yet displays perfect parity, over the past fifteen years the proportion of women has risen remarkably in all assemblies.

Part des femmes dans les assemblées 2000-2018

Proportion of women in political assemblies (2000- 2018).

Source : Catherine Achin, Sandrine Lévêque, (2018).

In terms of numbers, it may be unequivocally stated that parity laws have been effective, though it should be pointed out that they have not fulfilled their initial objective, since by 2017 no assembly had reached perfect parity. Their effectiveness is directly related to the degree of coercion. When the law only offers inducements, advances towards parity have been mediocre in comparison to spheres where the law is more binding, such as the 2013 reform to departmental councils, where the results are better. This has no doubt acted as an argument in favor of tightening up legal provisions, undermining certain arguments from those who felt allowing things to take their natural course would suffice for the number of women in politics to increase20.


Mandats et renouvellements

In addition to this, parity laws have had non-negligible symbolic effects. Parity has become an issue in political bodies where it is not imposed by any legal norm. Thus in the wake of the “Juppé’s Girls” episode in 1995 (referred to as the ‘Jupettes’, i.e. mini-skirts, a sexist pun referring the youth and inexperience of the new intake of women), women’s role in governments has become such a major PR issue that it would seem impossible for any prime minister or president to ignore this “constraint”. Indeed, it is a topic that most political observers now examine carefully. Presidential candidates have to engage with the issue, as Nicolas Sarkozy did in 2007, though he failed to follow through once elected. In 2012 targeting parity was one of François Hollande’s campaign promises – which he respected – and on the left (including among Greens), it is now a definitively acquired given. In 2017, in his book Faire, François Fillon promised a slimmed down government that would be half women, half men21. Emmanuel Macron also announces that the candidates of his new party En Marche will be equal. From now on, gender equality is presented as a guarantee of modernity in politics, of renewal of political game.

In addition to these effects stemming from parity laws, mention should also be made of the general politicization of gender issues. This may transpire in policy issues (such as same-sex marriage for the 2012 presidential elections, and assisted reproductive technology, surrogate motherhood, and equal pay for the 2017 elections), or as elements of political and electoral (in)competence, such as in the Strauss-Kahn affair and the Gayet affair22. Whereas male hegemony was previously an implicit condition for success in politics, candidates’ sexuality now seems to be a direct factor in the candidate selection process.

But these good results are in fact misleading. For while politics as a profession has been opened up to larger numbers of women, it still remains a man’s world, dominated by the masculine values that have underpinned its construction ever since the mid-nineteenth century, in a realm made by and for men, and from which women were excluded by law up until 1945. Several indicators therefore nuance this picture of the effectiveness of current parity laws.

As observed earlier, the laws are currently far less stringent for the most fiercely contested offices, particularly positions in parliament. Several mechanisms may be deployed to attenuate the effects of parity obligations, thus safeguarding the political realm as a male preserve. Some of these mechanisms involve an element of strategy, with women being deliberately sidelined from politics, whilst others are more insidious, and operate partly beyond the control of those involved in politics. Thus if parity laws are widely accepted by male politicians, it is also because male leadership can be retained using more or less direct and explicit means.

It is possible to “twist” the law, or at least to attenuate its effects. In failing to present enough women candidates for parliamentary elections, political parties continue to forego a sizeable share of the public funding they are entitled to. Vincent Tiberj and Mariette Sineau point out that the UMP and PS have respectively “lost” nearly €4 million and €1.3 million each year, representing 15 % of funding for the UMP and 9 % for the PS23. The situation did not really change for the period 2007-2012. And in the 2017 general elections there were scarcely more female candidates than previously. In 2017 the “Les républicains” party was the worst parity offender, and as in previous elections it often presented women candidates in hard-to-win constituencies. It is because women candidates of “En Marche” won even when they were not favourites, that the assembly became strongly feminised.

“Organized dissidence” is another way of attenuating the effects of parity laws. Senators are elected by electoral college for each department, with the number of senators per department varying. Departments with three or more senators elect them using a proportional representation list system. At times senate candidates opt to be placed at the head of a seemingly rival list, rather than be “relegated” to third place, which would prevent them from being elected. The cumulative effect, when one looks at all the lists, nominally based on alternating male-female parity, is that outgoing (male) senators are re-elected, to the detriment of (female) candidates placed second on the list. Roger Karoutchi, UMP Senator for the Hauts-de-Seine, summarized the strategy to a journalist from Le Monde in the following terms on September 29, 2014:

we [the men] campaign together with separate lists [each headed by an outgoing male senator] and say to the electoral college: share your votes [between these lists]! It is not that we want to avoid parity, it is to retain our incumbents.

The Parity Observatory (Observatoire de la Parité) and the HCEfh have long considered this practice to be a genuine “anti-parity strategy”. An HCEfh report reckons that if this sort of organized dissidence were outlawed, nine additional women would have been elected in 2014, which would have significantly increased the proportion of women in the upper house24. For municipal elections, dissidence is primarily a case of men tending to prefer standing in their own name, at the head of a list, rather than being “relegated” due to the obligation to alternate female and male candidates. This enables certain candidates, particularly in towns subject to the specific PLM (Paris Lyon Marseille) regime, to retain their seat as a councilor on the central body. In 2008 in Paris, for example, out of twenty-eight lists labeled “various right” and “various left” – running against lists presented in due form by the UMP, Modem, Greens, and PS – four were headed by women and twenty-four by men25. Placing men at the head of lists (which still prevails for most elections using a list system) is a way of increasing the number of men who finally get elected. If an even number of candidates from the list are elected, then parity is respected. But if an odd number are elected, then more men end up being elected.

Apart from dissidence, political parties have been known to present “dummy” candidates in European elections, who resigned on being elected, precisely to enable male candidates, placed after them on the list, to win the seat. These two mechanisms have resulted in a slight drop in the number of French female MEPs, even though the European Parliament was presented as exemplary in matters of parity (due to particularly stringent legal constraints and the institution’s lesser prestige, meaning it provided a way for a certain number of women to enter professional politics)26.

These explicit strategies to circumvent the rules are not in themselves sufficient to explain why the most prized trophies in politics still largely elude women. Other mechanisms conspire to keep the most strategic places of power a male preserve.

The feminization of assemblies made possible by parity laws has not overturned the gender order. Women still run up against a glass ceiling, and over the course of their career rarely meet the conditions that might enable them to break through it. Although local assemblies (regional councils and departmental councils) are nowadays close to parity, their executives are predominantly male. And even when the parity “constraint” is maximal (as is the case with departmental councils with the obligation to elect mixed tickets), their executives remain predominantly male too. According to the 2017 HCEfh report, women now account for 50 % of departmental assemblies, but only 10 % of departments are run by women, and less than 20 % of regions. The report states that “there is an exclusively male president/1st vice-president tandem in 57 out of 101 departments, and 11 out of 18 regions, as against one exclusively female tandem at the departmental and regional level”. For all local assemblies combined (including intermunicipal bodies), 60.3 % of councilors are men, and they hold 83.4 % of the presidencies and 63.4 % of the vice-presidencies. As various reports by the Parity Observatory and the HCEfh repeatedly emphasize, “sharing stops where power starts”. This comment also applies to all the local executives, and even more so to the Public Intermunicipal Cooperation Establishments, 92.2 % of which are run by men.

Turning to committees, the division of labor between men and women once again seems to follow gender stereotypes. Both in local assemblies and the National Assembly women are always overrepresented on social committees (such as schooling, health, disability, and so on) and underrepresented in technical ones or those relating to the state’s sovereign affairs such as the budget, finances, and transport. In 2014, 26.1 % of MPs were women, but they accounted for only 14.9 % of the members of the Finance Committee, 16.1 % of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and 21.1 % of the Defense Committee. On the other hand, they represented 40 % of the members of the Cultural Affairs Committee, and 47.9 % of the members on the Social Affairs Committee27. This gendered division of parliamentary labor28 still persists in 2017. Women thus remain more numerous and over-represented in the Cultural Affairs Committee (42/73),  Social Affairs Committee (38/73), and under-represented in Finance Committee (23/73) and on Defence Committee (17/73). This phenomenon of gendered division of labor may also be observed in the European Parliament. The two committees with the largest proportion of women are, unsurprisingly, Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, and Employment and Social Affairs, with 90.3 % and 60 % of women respectively. Those with the lowest proportion of women are Constitutional Affairs (10 %) and Budgetary Control (16 %).


Writing about France, Michel Koebel confirms the existence of this mechanism of an implicit hierarchy of committees, and their division along stereotyped lines29. This phenomenon hinders women’s political “professionalization”, since they occupy positions regarded as less technical, drawing on skills they are said to “naturally” share with other women (and hence that they can less easily capitalize on when seeking selection as candidates for other positions). Equally, women hold fewer multiple offices than men30. They have shorter careers, even in bodies which appear pro-parity, such as the Paris Council, where there is a far higher turnover of councilors than that found in other councils or in government31. In 2017, Julien Boelaert, Sébastien Michon and Étienne Ollion32 show that women MPs are still less experienced than men MPs. For example, they have spent less time in political careers and less time in ministerial cabinets. 38.6 % of women MPs elected in 2017 are thus virgins of any political activity against only 20.7 % of men MPs. Several factors may explain why women’s careers are more fragile at the highest levels, the first of which is their lack of political capital. Female ministers in particular often hold less prestigious offices and/or have less sizeable party capital than their male counterparts. In addition to this, women often present other characteristics, such as being from an ethnically diverse background, bearing in mind that diversity is a fragile and often ephemeral political resource33. Selecting women from ethnically diverse backgrounds (for the government, or for lists) is a way of ticking several boxes at the same time (and of retaining positions for men). But it may also be a way of displaying good intentions with regard to parity while controlling the careers of female candidates, many of whom have little political capital34.

AMF 2015

Congress of the mayors of France, on November 18th, 2015.

Photo Corentin Fohlen.

Furthermore, as observed during campaigning for municipal elections in 2014, women are frequently subject to sexist attacks, particularly those holding the most prestigious positions. These affairs are now publicized and generally condemned, and, like the Strauss-Kahn affair or the more recent Denis Baupin affair, they reveal the principles constituting politics as a patriarchal, bourgeois, white, male domain35. More ordinary and virtually routine sexist attacks maintain politics as a male preserve, a characteristic shared by the broader circle of political professionals, including journalists, humorists, and spin doctors.

The feminization of the political field has thus not fundamentally altered the definition of politics as a profession, which still conforms to the principles governing its historical construction as a male career. Nor has it necessarily altered the social principles governing political recruitment. And while the argument put forward to justify parity – that political representation should mirror society – has indeed made it possible to show women’s faces, this mirror continues to reflect a distorted image of social reality.

Parity and fundamental changes to political recruitment

Municipal elections, by encouraging political novices, have both resulted in a degree of social diversification in political recruitment, and enabled hitherto excluded profiles of women to emerge on the local political stage36. The parity report on the 2012-2014 electoral cycle states that the feminization of assemblies (and particularly municipal councils) has led, via a mirror effect, to municipal councilors being recruited from “traditionally” highly feminized sectors, such as the medical, social, and teaching professions. Thus gender domination is reinforced by class domination, something that is particularly true at the local level.

However, as one moves up the political hierarchy, the principles governing political recruitment seem to reassert themselves. In regional and departmental councils both men and women tend to come from the upper social categories, though more women than men in these assemblies tend to come from intermediary social categories37.

At the national level, in government and parliament, and in a “central” local institution such as the Paris Council, the feminization of assemblies has not resulted in an opening up of political recruitment, and it remains a socially elitist body. Catherine Achin reckons that in the French National Assembly “56 % of the 104 female MPs come from the managerial and intellectual professions, as against 78 % of the 470 male MPs  (whereas 16.2 % of the working population came from this category in 2008)”38. In 2017, the feminisation of the Assembly is not synonymous with a democratisation of political recruitment. As Julien Boelaert, Sébastien Michon and Étienne Ollion show, the LREM parliamentary group is both the most feminised in the assembly (with 48 % women) and the one where the upper class are over-represented39. In his prosopographic study of the 367 Paris councilors elected between 1945 and 1977 (of whom 12.7 % were women), Philippe Nivet shows that half came from the managerial and intellectual professions40. The same tendency is found amongst Paris councilors elected between 2008 and 2014, 80% of whom came from the upper socio-professional categories. It should be pointed out that in an institution where seats are as fiercely contested as the Paris Council, the recruitment pool for candidates tends to be limited to staff of elected members. This points to the progressive “confiscation” of elective trophies by professional politicians, that is to say the new Socialist elites who have never worked outside politics41.

The issue of candidates’ age reveals the same principles at work. Although politics became more youthful for a while thanks to an influx of women, particularly in local assemblies, this concealed women’s lesser degree of political professionalization. Thus the mechanisms mentioned above – pertaining in particular to glass ceilings and glass partitions, leading women to exclude themselves and be excluded from the most prized political realms – has also led a higher turnover amongst female politicians, as if women were interchangeable42. Thus women hold fewer political offices than men over time. And especially, more of them leave politics, including the best placed with the most political capital43. If we add to these complex processes of exclusion and self-exclusion the ways in which parity measures are instrumentalized, and the overt decision to select “young and pretty” female candidates for lists, then it is easier to understand how male politicians have mainly retained their hold on places of power, and maintained a form of ascendancy over women, who are largely indebted to them for their positions.

This reveals the ambivalence of parity regulations. Changing the formal rules does not  change the political game even if the law on the dual mandate adopted on 14 February 2014 and applied in 2017 seems to have had positive effects on women's entry into politics. Contrary to their opponents’ fears, parity laws have not impaired French universalism (and have done nothing to correct its most salient failings). Nor has parity led to “incompetent” women being selected in the stead of competent men. Instead, it has tended to naturalize supposedly feminine qualities that are hard to deploy in politics. As shown when Ségolène Royal ran for the presidency in 2007, women’s identity in politics is in fact an impossible one. For though the fact of being a woman can be deployed as a resource in political contest, it can be turned back against its user at any moment.

Unfold notes and references
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The first “country” to have granted women the right to vote is generally considered to be the State of New Jersey, in 1776. In 1893 the sovereign state of New Zealand was the first to grant women the right to vote. Switzerland was one of the last “modern” democracies to accord women the vote, in 1971. Though France introduced universal male suffrage in 1848, it was nearly a century later (1944) before women acquired the same right.

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Réjane Sénac-Slawinski, “Panorama des stratégies mises en place dans le monde pour compenser la sous-représentation des femmes en politique”, in R. Sénac-Slawinski, La Parité, Paris, PUF, 2008.

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Sophie Jacquot, “L'instrumentation du gender mainstreaming à la commission européenne: entre ingénierie sociale et ingénierie instrumentale”, Politique européenne, vol. 3, n° 20, 2006, p. 33-54.

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Elen Boneparth, Women Power and Policy, New York, Pergamon Press, 1984.

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Rosabeth Moss Kanter, “Some Effects of proportions on group life: skewed sex ratio and responses to token women”, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 82, n° 5, 1977, p. 965-990. On the issue of effectiveness see Sarah Child, Mona Lena Krook, “Gender and politics: The state of the art”, Politics, vol. 26, n° 1, 2006, p. 18-28.

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See Janine Mossuz-Lavau, “Le vote des femmes en France (1945-1993)”, Revue française de science politique, vol. 43, n° 4, 1993, p. 673-689; Pippa Norris, Ronald F. Inglehart, “The Developmental Theory of the Gender Gap: Women’s and Men’s Voting Behavior, in Global Perspective”, International Political Review, vol. 21, n° 4, 2000, p. 441-463; Cécile Guillaumet, Sophie Pochic, “Syndicalisme (et genre)”, in C. Achin, L. Bereni (eds.), Dictionnaire genre & science politique, Presses de Sciences Po, 2013, p. 480-492.

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The quota project is a database set up by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the University of Stockholm collating data from around the world on quota provisions and their effectiveness.

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Virginie Dutoya, “Une demande faite au nom des femmes? Quotas et représentation politique des femmes en Inde et au Pakistan (1917-2010)”, Revue française de science politique, vol. 66, n° 1, 2016, p. 49-70.

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Drude Daherup, Lenita Freidenvall, “Quotas as a ‘Fast Track’ to Equal Representation for Women. Why Scandinavia is no Longer the Model?”, International Feminist Journal of Politics, vol. 7, n° 1, 2005, p. 26-48.

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Especially that of the quota project and that of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, mentioned above.

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Joan W. Scott, Parité! L’universel et la différence des sexes, Paris, Albin Michel, 2005. Dulong Delphine, “Des actes d'institutions d'un genre particulier. Les conditions de légitimation des femmes sur la scène électorale (1945 et 2001)”, in J. Lagroye, (ed.), La Politisation, Paris, Belin, 2003.

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Catherine Achin, Le Mystère de la chambre basse: comparaison des processus d’entrée des femmes au Parlement, France-Allemagne, 1945-2000, Paris, Dalloz, 2005.

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Dorothy MacBride, Amy G. Mazur, (eds.), Comparative State Feminism, Sage Publication, 1995.

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Catherine Achin, Sandrine Lévêque, Femmes en politique, Paris, La Découverte, 2006.

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Laure Bereni, “Lutter dans ou en dehors du parti? L'évolution des stratégies des féministes du Parti socialiste (1971-1997)”, Politix, vol. 1, n° 73, 2006, p. 187-209.

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This activist academic work was one of the earliest to argue in favor of parity. Janine Mossuz Lavau, Histoire et enjeux de la loi sur la parité, Projet, April 1, 2005, available online.

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Laure Bereni, La Bataille de la parité: Mobilisations pour la féminisation du pouvoir, Paris, Economica, 2015.

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See respectively Joan Scott, La Citoyenne paradoxale: les féministes françaises et les droits de l'homme, Paris, Albin Michel, 1998; Eléonore Lépinard, L’Égalité introuvable. La parité, les féministes et la République, Paris, Presses de la FNSP, 2007; Catherine Achin, “Représentation miroir versus parité. Les débats parlementaires relatifs à la parité revus à la lumière des théories politiques de la representation”, Droit et société, vol. 1, n° 47, 2001, p. 237-256.

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The collective survey carried out by the “Invention de l’élu.E” group shows that parity was instrumentalized, and that it was mainly professional women with no prior political experience who were promoted, to the detriment of long-standing activists. This was justified by the need to “renew politics”, and for many men provided a way of retaining their leadership over novice candidates. See Catherine Achin et al, Sexes, genre et politique, Paris, Economica, 2007.

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Recommendations by the High Council for Equality seek to bring about changes to on Charlotte Girard and Isabelle Boucobza, have sought to combat various observed ways of circumventing legal provisions for equal female-male access to political office.

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François Fillon, Faire, Paris, Albin Michel, 2015.

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See Genre, Sexualité et société, special edition n° 2, 2012 presidential elections; Frédérique Matonti, “Adultère présidentiel et politisation. Vers une politique de la vérité à la française?”, Politix, vol. 3, n° 107, 2014, p. 117-142.

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Mariette Sineau, Vincent Tiberj, “Candidats et députés français en 2002. Une approche sociale de la representation”, Revue française de science politique, vol. 57, n° 2, 2007, p. 163-185.

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HCEfh report, p. 84-86.

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Catherine Achin, Sandrine Lévêque, “L’une chante et l’autre pas”, in É. Agrikoliansky et al., Paris en campagne, Bellecombes en Bauge, Éditions du Croquant, 2010.

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Willy Beauvallet, Sébastien Michon, “L'impact du mode de scrutin Européen sur l'élection des femmes au parlement européen en France: une dynamique associant règles juridiques et stratégies politiques”, Politique européenne, vol. 1, n° 24, 2008, p. 123-143.

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Catherine Achin, Sandrine Lévêque, “La parité sous contrôle. Égalité des sexes et clôture du champ politique”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, vol. 4, n° 204, 2014, p. 118-137.

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Rainbow Murray, Réjane Sénac, “Explaining Gender Gaps in Legislative Committees”, Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, vol. 39, n° 3, 2018, p. 310-335.

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Michel Koebel, “Dans l’ombre des maires. Le poids des hiérarchies dans le choix des adjoints des villes moyennes françaises”, Métropolitiques, January 20, 2014.

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Gender study on parliamentarians holding multiple offices, HCEfh, report of the month, April 2013.

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Catherine Achin, Sandrine Lévêque, “La parité sous contrôle. Égalité des sexes et clôture du champ politique”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, vol. 4, n° 204, 2014, p. 118-137; Valentin Behr, Sébastien Michon, “Les facteurs sociaux des carrières politiques des femmes ministres. Une féminisation en trompe-l'œil”, Genèses, vol. 3, n° 96, 2014, p. 132-156.

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Julien Boelaert, Sébastien Michon, Étienne Ollion, “Le temps des élites. Ouverture politique et fermeture sociale à l’Assemblée nationale en 2017”, Revue française de science politique, (à paraître).

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Martina Avanza reckons that in 2008, 9.47 % of elected representatives were from ethnic minorities. The vast majority of them were on the left, and 63 % of them were women (8 out of 9 for the Paris Council). Based on Martina Avanza, “Manières d’être divers. Les stratégies partisanes de la ‘diversité’ aux élections municipales de 2008”, in D. Fassin (ed.), Les Nouvelles frontières de la société française, Paris, La Découverte, 2010, p. 403-425. In 2012, 14 of the members on the Paris Council (i.e. 8.6 % of the assembly as a whole) came from ethnic minorities, of whom 13 women, mostly left-wing (9 out of the 14). On this point see Catherine Achin, Sandrine Lévêque, “Parité, sur-sélection sociale et professionnalisation politique. Le Conseil de Paris 2001-2014”, in S. Lévêque, A-F. Taiclet (eds.), À la conquête des villes. Sociologie politique des élections municipales de 2014 en France, Lille, Presse du Septentrion, 2018.

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Stéphane Latté, “Cuisine et dépendance. Les logiques pratiques du recrutement politique”, Politix, vol. 15, n° 60, 2002, p. 55-80.

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Frédérique Matonti, “Les mots pour (ne pas) le dire. Viol, consentement, harcèlement: les médias face aux affaires Strauss-Kahn”, Raisons politiques, vol. 2, n° 46, 2012, p. 13-45; Vanessa Jérome, “Les liaisons (in)fructueuses. Effets différenciés des conjugalités et des sexualités sur la professionnalisation politique des militants verts”, Politix, vol. 3, n° 107, 2014, p. 143-160 and Les Verts face à l’affaire Denis Baupin : féminisme, sexisme et loyauté.

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Marion Paoletti, “Les grillons du foyer municipal, les femmes au foyer en politique”, Travail, genre et sociétés, vol. 1, n° 19, 2008, p. 111-130.

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According to the above-mentioned report, in 2015 more than a third of regional councilors came from the category of “managerial and professional occupations”, with 30 % of female regional councilors coming from this category and 36.5 % of male regional councilors. In these same two councils, 24.2 % of female councilors and 18 % of male councilors came from the intermediary professions. The gap between men and women is thus declining.

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Catherine Achin, “Au-delà de la parité”, Mouvements, vol. 1, n° 69, 2012, p. 49-54.

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Julien Boelaert, Sébastien Michon, Étienne Ollion, “Le temps des élites. Ouverture politique et fermeture sociale à l’Assemblée nationale en 2017”, Revue française de science politique, (forthcoming).

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Philippe Nivet, “L’histoire des institutions parisiennes, d’Etienne Marcel à Bertrand Delanoë”, Pouvoirs, vol. 3, n° 110, 2004, p. 5-18.

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Rémi Lefebvre, Frédéric Sawicki, La Société des socialistes. Le PS aujourd’hui, Bellecombe en Bauge, Éditions du Croquant, 2006.

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As shown, female Paris councilors have shorter careers than their male counterparts. In addition to this, fewer of them move on to higher office (as a parliamentarian or minister) than do their male counterparts. On this point see Catherine Achin, Sandrine Lévêque, “Parité, sur-sélection sociale et professionnalisation politique. Le Conseil de Paris 2001-2014”, in S. Lévêque, A-F. Taiclet (eds.), À la conquête des villes. Sociologie politique des élections municipales de 2014 en France, Lille, Presse du Septentrion, 2018.

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Catherine Achin, Sandrine Lévêque, “Femmes, énarques et professionnelles de la politique. Des carrières exceptionnelles sous contraintes”, Genèses, vol. 2, n° 67, 2007, p. 24-44.