Gender equality has otherwise featured little in a campaign dominated by the war in Ukraine and the cost of living, but feminist organizations and academics are nonetheless working to highlight the major challenges women in the country face over the next five years, including femicide, gendered Islamophobia, pay inequality and precarious employment.
A report from Oxfam France released last month put it this way: ‘Gender equality: grand cause, small results’. The report noted that the €1.3 billion allocated to all gender equality measures represented just 0.25% of the total national budget. By contrast, a collective of feminist groups is calling on the next president, whoever that may be, to invest €1 billion in domestic violence alone within their first 100 days in office.
This is the first presidential election since the #MeToo movement began in 2017, along with associated campaigns such as #MeTooIncest, which sparked a wave of testimonies from survivors and led the government to tighten laws around the age of consent, raising it to 15 generally and 18 in cases of incest.
“There has been progress. We can’t deny it,” says Maëlle Noir, a member of the #NousToutes (All of Us) collective, which campaigns against gender-based violence in France. But Noir says the “sprinkling” of policies associated with violence against women, which include introducing fines for street harassment, will not succeed without deeper reforms, such as addressing the role of the justice system.
As part of a national inquiry into domestic violence in 2019, a government analysis found that 80% of complaints were dropped by public prosecutors. And in a case that has come to symbolize the failings of the police force in dealing with domestic violence, 31-year-old Chahinez Daoud was murdered by her ex-husband outside her home last year, after police first failed to notify her that he had been released from prison — where he had served a sentence for violence against her — and then failed to follow up on a subsequent complaint of assault.
The Ministry of the Interior declined to respond to CNN’s request for comment on the police force’s treatment of domestic violence cases due to the restrictions placed on government representatives during the presidential campaign period.
Since 2017, 640 women have been killed by a current or former partner, according to the volunteer organization Femicides by a Partner or Ex, which compiles its statistics from media reports.
As well as demanding mandatory training in dealing with intimate partner violence for police and all public officials who come into contact with survivors, Noir says #NousToutes advocates for a large-scale public awareness campaign based on former President Jacques Chirac’s highly successful program on road safety, which included consistent public messaging from the Élysée and saw deaths on the road fall by 40%.
For many French feminists, Macron’s choice of hard-right Gérald Darmanin as interior minister in 2020 is an original sin that has been hard to forgive. Darmanin was under investigation for rape when he was given the job, through which he is responsible for the police force. The appointment spurred hundreds of women to take to the streets in protest.
“The message that sent was completely staggering,” says Léa Chamboncel, the host of French politics podcast Popol and author of the book More Women in Politics!. For feminists, “after that it was done, finished, over,” she says.
A lawyer for Darmanin called the accusations baseless and Macron defended his decision on the basis of the presumption of innocence, saying he trusted the minister “man to man.” The investigation was closed in 2021 and prosecutors requested a formal dismissal earlier this year.
Darmanin was also the public face of France’s “separatism” law, passed in 2021, which gave the government new powers to close mosques, exert greater control over religious charities and NGOs and refuse homeschooling in certain cases. The law was intended to reinforce official Republican values and combat Islamist extremism, but civil rights advocates say it has had a chilling effect on the Muslim population more widely, in a country where veiled women in particular have often been the target of debates over laïcité, the French version of secularism.
“The law is reshaping most civil liberties by weakening them,” says Rim-Sarah Alouane, a legal scholar and researcher at the University Toulouse Capitole. “It affects a whole range of people, but the law was designed to frame and control Muslims. And the first victims will be Muslim women.”
In a recent tweet
, Macron’s projected opponent in the second round, the far-right Marine Le Pen, illustrated her proposal to write “the fight against communitarianism” into the French constitution with an image of a veiled woman with her face blurred out.
Le Pen, who describes herself as a feminist, has worked to soften her image in recent years.
“She has deliberately implemented a strategy of feminisation,” Chamboncel says, adding that the leader of the Rassemblement National has “normalized” her party and made a point of promoting more women in her campaign. Before the 2012 election, 19% of women said they would vote for the far-right according to the polling group Ifop; 10 years later that figure has increased to 34%.
An analysis of the gender equality policies in the manifestos of all 12 presidential candidates by a team of postgraduate students at Sciences Po university described Le Pen’s program, which is light on gender equality measures, as “femonationalist”. In a “Letter to French Women” published on International Women’s Day, Le Pen pledged to deport immigrants who engaged in street harassment if she becomes France’s first female president.
Amid rising inflation, Le Pen is campaigning hard on the cost of living. But she is one of the few candidates not to have proposed to increase the minimum wage, a policy that would have an outsized effect on women, who make up 59% of people employed on this wage. Macron’s economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, has pledged to increase the minimum wage by €25 a month from this summer.
Left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has proposed a greater increase, of €131 per month. In a wide-ranging gender equality program, he has also promised to allocate the €1 billion demanded by feminist organizations to address domestic violence.
Many of the women earning minimum wage make up the “essential workers” the country came to depend on during the pandemic in professions where the workforce is almost entirely female, such as home care, nursing and social work.
“During the health crisis, we applauded and praised the merits of all these essential jobs, which are 80 to 90% occupied by women,” says economist Rachel Silvera from Paris-Nanterre University, who directs the Labour Market and Gender research group. “But we do not recognize their value.”
Silvera points out that while women have been hit hard by Covid-19 over the past two years, France has so far escaped the mass dropouts from the workforce witnessed in other countries thanks to the extension of partial unemployment payments throughout the health crisis. But at 16%, France’s gender pay gap remains slightly above the EU average of 13%.
For the next presidential term, Silvera says the best way to reduce economic inequality between men and women would be to raise wages in these heavily feminized professions. So far, Macron’s gender equality policies have mostly helped women “at the top of the pyramid,” she says.
The World Economic Forum estimates that it will take 52 years to close the gender gap in Western Europe. This is more than ten times longer than the next president will have to make a dent in gender inequality. There may have to be several more “grand causes” to come before France achieves its founding ideal of égalité — equality.