By April, Paris will likely have its first-ever female mayor. Many hail it as a sign of political empowerment for women in France. French gender equality activists say it's drawing attention from the reality.
Pictured above are Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet - popularly known as "NKM" - and her opponent Anne Hidalgo, both frontrunners in Paris's mayoral elections on March 23. Polls show the election ending in a March 30 run-off, where Socialist Hidalgo is expected to defeat center-right Kosciusko-Morizet by a margin of 5 percent or less.
That would give Paris its first female mayor - a powerful post that led straight to the presidency for Jaques Chirac. Combined with French President Francois Hollande's 50-percent-female "parity government" and other heavyweights - former presidential candidate Segolene Royal, Marine Le Pen of the right-wing Front National, Martine Aubry in the National Assembly and Christine Lagarde at the International Monetary Fund - and it appears France has made major progress in attaining gender equality in politics.
It has not, says Julia Mouzon, the founder of a French political network for women called Femmes & Pouvoir (Women & Power). "The main point to understand from abroad is that Paris, and these women, are the tree that hides the forest," she told DW.
That forest is made of men. They constitute 31,000 of the country's 36,000 mayors, according to the "High Council for Equality between Women and Men" (HCEfh), a French government agency. That proportion will only slightly improve when communes vote in this year's municipales: In a best-case scenario, women will constitute 17 percent of French mayors to today's 13.
Such numbers improve little on the upward march to national politics. Just 14 percent of French counties, or départements, are governed by women, according to the HCEfh. At the state level, only two of the 22 régions - 9 percent - have a female premier in Metropolitan France (France's mainland plus nearby islands, including Corsica). Women comprise roughly one quarter of parliament and 20 percent of the Senate, and while France once had a female prime minister, it has yet to swear in a presidential equivalent. Nor is Hollande's 50-percent "parity government" exactly what it seems, Mouzon says.
"[The female ministers] are assigned to family, education, social services, maybe environment," she said. "And men get the economics, finance and foreign ministries."
On that point Hollande's conservative predecessor did better: Nicolas Sarkozy's cabinet had female ministers of defense, finance, justice and health. In gender equality circles, however, Sarkozy is remembered more for his party's decision to intentionally ignore a "parity law" and instead pay millions in fines.
"Normally, the authorities of parties have to field as many men as women," says Florence Pelissier, an activist who occasionally participates with Mouzon in a gender equality group known as La Barbe. "Sarkozy said, 'We're not going to respect the law on parity - too many important things are at stake here'."
Even when the parity law adhered to, it is often abused, Mouzon says: French political parties simply field female candidates where the party is destined to lose anyway, resulting in low female representation post-election. Within France, the Greens are known for having the highest gender equality, followed by the Socialists and the center-right Union for a Popular Movement.
Among the 28 EU countries, France is 13th in female political empowerment according to the World Economic Forum's 2013 gender gap report. A 2012 report by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), however, placed the country sixth. In response to a DW query, EIGE clarified that it incorporates local council participation in its data; the World Economic Forum does not include such figures, and in contrast to the EIGE, it also includes the office of president and prime minister "for the last 50 years."
Regardless of where France falls in the EU pack, its citizens are ready for political equality to happen faster. "Power sharing is not yet a reality," notes a May 13 HCEfh brief on the upcoming municipal elections, "and yet 70 percent of French people want there to be more women mayors."
For Pelissier, the hype surrounding the Paris campaign is Parisian "window dressing": one that distorts gender equality discussions abroad and, within France, is simultaneously viewed dismissively. "The media treats this as a battle of the ladies - how they're dressed, which handbag," she says. A perceived dispute between Hidalgo and NKM is a "catfight." It reminds Pelissier of Segeolene Royal's failed 2007 presidential campaign against Sarkozy, when Royal was criticized more for her clothes than her policy proposals.
Both Pelissier and Mouzon occasionally fight back with humor. Female members of La Barbe, which means both "the beard" and "enough" in French, occasionally sneak into France's Senate, National Assembly or other large political gatherings, and, on cue, don fake beards, encircle politicians, and congratulate them on keeping the old boys' club together against all odds. "We are not protesting loudly. We are simply ironically showing how backward this is," Pelissier says.
Mouzon's Femmes & Pouvoir organization, meanwhile, brings French female politicians of all political stripes together once a year to trade tips on beating those odds. "If we have a woman elected in the south of France, she'll talk with a women from the north of France. They may not be from the same party, but they're living the same thing, and they're not in competition with one another," she says.
One of those women is Karine Renouil, a current mayoral candidate in a commune close to Paris called Nogent-sur-Marne. She told DW that the annual Femmes & Pouvoir meeting has helped her develop her voice and has led to an endorsement by the former minister of youth affairs and sport.
Of the six candidates running for the mayoral post, Renouil is the only woman - "quite usual," she says. Still, she encourages young French women to follow.
"Go, go, go. It is important that political matters are run by men and women. We're so late in France."