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French President François Hollande achieves gender parity of sorts

Patrick Aventurier/File/Getty Images

Women celebrated in Paris after François Hollande’s victory on May 6. He promised gender equality in government.

PARIS - President François Hollande promised gender parity in his government and better access to power for women. He has kept his word, sort of.

Europe’s second-largest economy now has an equal number of men and women in its Cabinet of ministers for the first time. Still, women don’t hold the most critical ministerial posts, and men account for more than 80 percent of Hollande’s powerful policy-making team at the Élysée presidential palace.

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“Hollande has done a great job honoring his campaign promise of parity in the Cabinet, but it looks like he doesn’t like to be advised by women,’’ Marie-Jo Zimmermann, a lawmaker from former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s party and head of the women’s rights committee at the National Assembly, said in an interview. “I give him an A-minus for his government. I can’t be too nice to him. But the jury is out when it comes to his team of close aides.’’

Keeping his campaign pledge on parity was critical for Hollande ahead of the country’s legislative elections on June 10 and 17 that will determine if his Socialist Party gets control of the French Parliament.

Winning over women, who account for 53 percent of the country’s electorate, will be vital to securing a majority in the lower house of the National Assembly.

Hollande, 57, named 17 women in his 34-strong Cabinet of ministers. Yet Sylvie Hubac is the only woman in his eight-member core council of advisers that has the president’s ear and drafts and directs his agenda and the nation’s policy.

“It’s sexist and outdated,’’ said Alix Beranger, 33, a founder of the feminist group La Barbe, or The Beard, one of the 45 such groups that got presidential candidates to sign a pledge of parity. “It creates small, virile enclaves where it’s extremely difficult for women to enter. There are more than enough qualified women to be in that inner circle.’’

Before being elected in 2007, Sarkozy promised gender parity, something he never achieved. At the end of his mandate, women represented 29 percent of the Cabinet. Still, in the early days of his presidency he assigned them to powerful portfolios such as finance, defense, and the interior.

Sarkozy named Christine Lagarde, currently the head of the International Monetary Fund, his finance minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie at various times the minister for interior affairs, justice, and defense and Valérie Pécresse the budget minister.

Hollande’s government, unveiled May 16, relegates women to softer matters. High-profile ministries of finance, education, defense, foreign affairs, and the interior are held by men.

“The parity government is a great move forward, but we are not duped,’’ said Beranger. “Women are not fully on par for positions. No defense, no interior affairs. That may improve with time, we’ll see.’’

In the Hollande government, women hold portfolios including justice, health, social affairs, housing, energy, environment, culture, higher education, women’s rights, state reform, civil service, sports, youth, the elderly, commerce, tourism, the handicapped, and overseas territories.

“Women of this government have been appointed to fields in which they were competent and that’s its success,’’ Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the 34-year-old government spokeswoman and Minister for Women’s Rights, said in an interview. “I think the balance is rather well respected.’’

Hollande reopened the Ministry for Women’s Rights, the first portfolio of its kind since 1986. His two senior-level female appointees are Justice Minister Christiane Taubira and Health and Social Affairs Minister Marisol Touraine.

He named a woman to advise him on African matters, a first in French presidential history. He also chose Sandrine Duchêne, a former macroeconomist at the national statistics institute INSEE, to be among his economic advisers.

“This is not false parity; the women chosen are very competent,’’ Beranger said.

Hollande had invited the wrath of women’s organizations when he said during the presidential campaign that while “I would, of course, like a government with 50 percent women and 50 percent men,’’ parity doesn’t “mean that they will have the same responsibilities.’’

The gender parity promise may be hard to hold up after Hollande’s prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said May 16 that ministers running in the June legislative elections would have to quit if they are defeated. Six women are currently running for seats in the lower house of Parliament, including Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti.

The June vote will elect 577 members of the National Assembly. Between 2007 and the present, women held 18.9 percent of the seats in the body, a smaller proportion than Andorra’s 50 percent and 36 percent in Spain, putting France at the 19th rank for gender parity in Parliament in Europe’s 27-member Union.

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