The Royal Road to Defeat

Gender in the French Election

Compared to the interminable process that is the 2008 U.S. elections, France’s presidential election was on fast-forward. The twelve party candidates selected in November saw the first-round vote in April, which settled on Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, also known as beauty and the beast. In a record turnout on May 6, Sarkozy won 53.06 percent of the vote.

Sarkozy was an aggressive candidate, articulate and composed, alternatively posing on a horse as a cowboy (à la George W. Bush) and on the street as a tough talker (à la James Cagney). Royal was the model of decorum: calm, collected, and confident, combining the image of the eternal feminine with a subliminal appeal to the national icon, Marianne. He was the candidate of the Right and the respectable stand-in for Jean-Marie Le Pen, the perennial ultranationalist, antiimmigrant candidate. She was the candidate of the Left, trying to win the votes of the center, concerned for the marginal and outcast, including immigrants, with emphasis on equality and social solidarity. Both candidates focused on the chronic problems of the French economy in a globalizing world: how to transition from state control to greater market flexibility while managing social benefits that include a thirty-five-hour work week, a five-week vacation, and generous pensions and unemployment compensation.

Sarkozy’s solution is a version of the Protestant work ethic (we must each work harder); Royal’s a version of social democratic solidarity (we must all work together). Her policy proposals were vague and imprecise; and she stumbled on foreign-policy issues. His proposals, a cross between those of the Dickens character Thomas Gradgrind and New York’s Rudolph Giuliani, were specific and detailed; he came to Washington to shake George Bush’s hand.

Sarkozy seems a surprising choice for the French. Though they may favor his get-tough views on slackers and “scum,” as he called rioting immigrant youth, and hope that he can open up the economy, in fact, they are very likely to resist the painful work ethic that would make France more competitive. Royal’s “we’re all in this together” stance seemed more palatable, more French, and more likely to produce a consensus for change. Some observers have therefore seen Sarkozy’s victory as marking a deep change in French attitudes. But those observers may be overemphasizing policy and underemphasizing personality. It seems as likely that the outcome was a vote of no confidence in Royal.

Understand, she is no wilting lily. She elbowed her way to the top of the Socialist ticket against some heavy hitters, including her partner (in a civil union), François Hollande, the father of her four children and the head of the Socialist Party. Her policies appeared only slightly to the left of the course set by the outgoing president, Jacques Chirac, but without the drift. Socialists thought they had a good chance to win with a fresh face, at least as measured against a Chirac who had worn out his welcome, and a Sarkozy who they thought would turn people off. But perhaps it was that very fresh face that put off voters.

Women, especially first-timers running for top office, face a double bind. They want to emphasize their novel perspective as women, but not so much as to scare off voters. Indira Gandhi in India, Margaret Thatcher in England, and Angela Merkel in Germany surmounted this barrier by muting their “womanly” qualities and campaigning as political masters, policy wonks, and menschen—a model that Hillary Clinton has adopted.

Royal took a different tack. She wore dresses and high heels everywhere she went—even in farm fields. They were pretty dresses worn to good effect. With those amazing cheek bones that the French language produces in its native speakers, she appeared the classic (and classy) French woman. Where the bantam Sarkozy was quick in his movements and rat-a-tat in his speech, Royal maintained a graceful air and, like Chirac, gave emphasis to her speech by slowing down and drawing out syllables (a boon to the non-French ear). She never forgot to smile. She was the caring, nurturing woman, the reassuring alternative to Sarkozy’s brittleness.

All this might have played well to balance a more radical, challenging political platform. But yoked to her moderate a-little-more-of-same bromides, it lacked one thing that draws voters: a sense of direction and, above all, decisiveness. Marianne, after all, was not just a pretty woman. She was the bare-breasted woman warrior of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

Royal’s demeanor did not scare off voters. It just didn’t galvanize them. When she finally turned fierce, angrily wagging her finger at Sarkozy during their single debate (over benefits for disabled children), he got away with playing the bored husband placating a shrewish wife.

No surprise, women candidates are judged by different standards. Royal should have taken some political advice and fashion cues from Senator Clinton and Chancellor Merkel: stick to pants suits, display a well-honed wonkishness, and hide those cheek bones, preferably behind large glasses.

 


Related: More Like the Anglo-Saxons: Sarkozy's Plans for France, by Steven Englund
The Honeymoon Is Over, by William Pfaff

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.