France's sexist National Assembly
This week conservative French lawmaker Phillipe Le Ray was docked one-quarter of his monthly parliamentary salary for clucking like a chicken while Green Party MP Véronique Massonneau addressed the National Assembly on the subject of reforming France’s pensions system.
Sadly, it was not an isolated sexist episode by a rogue UMP lawmaker.
It was just the latest outburst that has made France’s National Assembly appear more like a construction worksite than le peuple’s repository of liberty, equality and fraternity.
In July 2012, Housing Minister Cécile Duflot became the target of hooting by conservative MPs as she took the microphone to answer questions about a Paris infrastructure project wearing, get this… a floral dress. The completely unassuming garment sparked a surprising chorus of cat-calls and whistling.
And in February, UMP lawmakers began an ugly tirade against National Assembly Vice-President Laurence Dumont because she dared interrupt the minority UMP leader Christian Jacob. Dumont’s fellow Socialist MPs accused the UMP bench of getting irritated because it was a woman who was calling the shots that day.
In view of those earlier incidents, Le Ray’s inappropriate poultry imitation immediately set off alarms in the French press. “New sexist quack at the Assembly” was one of the headlines.
Woman lawmakers did not take this latest attack lightly.
Government spokesman and Women’s Rights Ministry Najat Vallaud-Belkacem lamented that “some people struggle to maintain composure after one-too-many bottles of wine with their lunch,” while Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti played a more pessimistic tune: “A leopard can’t change its spots”.
In a show of solidarity and force, women MPs delayed their entrance to Wednesday afternoon’s parliamentary session. They were applauded by left-wing lawmakers as they marched in together a few minutes later, with Massonneau leading at the head of the column.
Angered by the women’s “theatrics,” the opposition UMP group abandoned the chamber.
A LONG WAY TO GO
French right-wing leaders do not have a monopoly on sexism (although it seems they are bent on taking over the market) by any means.
In the wake of the sexist scenes in France’s parliament, women MPs on both the right and left have complained to journalists of rampant paternalism by senior male MPs who feel the need to coach the “girls” in their functions and comfort them after a harsh debate.
And while France does not enjoy a monopoly of sexism in politics, its record compared to other European countries is nothing to brag about.
French women had to wait until 1945 – decades after Scandinavian, British and German counterparts – to cast ballots. One year after that milestone women represented just 6% of French MPs. But a snowball had been set in motion and almost 50 years later, in 1993, women could claim to be a whopping… 6% of French MPs. So much for that snowball.
Things are looking slightly better today. Thanks to financial sanctions imposed on political parties who do not present equal numbers of women and men candidates during local and legislative elections, the quantity of women in public office has risen considerably in recent years.
Women claim 27% of seats in the National Assembly, and 22% of seats in the Senate in 2013. But on the path to an equal partnership there are still hurdles like MP Le Ray (pictured right). Certainly he would not have presented the same gesture toward another man, or toward a woman if he had been out in public – so how can it be tolerated in the National Assembly?
While the UMP said the party regretted the incident it has refused to offer a formal apology to the insulted MP Massonneau.
The National Assembly is right to hit Le Ray where it hurts: his wallet.
Women should punish him and his cohorts where it will hurt even more: at the ballot box.