The Law on Gender Parity in Politics in France and New Caledonia: A Window into the Future or More of the Same?

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Abstract

The political participation of women in France and European and Kanak1 women in New Caledonia2 has been brought into sharp focus by an amendment to the French Constitution in mid-1999 (allowing for the implementation of the law on parity) mandating that women must constitute fifty percent of the electoral lists for certain elective offices.3 The law on parity merely requires that, for those elected offices to which the law applies, there should be roughly equal representation of women and men on the eligible lists. The law does not guarantee equality of representation on elected bodies. It merely provides a field upon which women can compete with men. In this way, the law creates formal legal access without guaranteeing substantive outcomes.

This article examines the historical roots of the French constitutional amendment allowing the law on parity to be implemented in France and its overseas territories, including without limitation, New Caledonia. It will outline the history and nature of the feminist movement in France and the influence of some feminists within the French government in achieving this formal legal change. It will also chronicle the anachronistic arguments proffered during the French debates and by some French feminists circles opposed to constitutional reform.

The roughly concurrent debates in New Caledonia concerning gender parity in politics are also sketched. Finally, the article will canvass the historical storyline of resistance to gender parity in New Caledonia by some Kanak male political leaders (including the executive committee of the largest Kanak political umbrella group-FLNKS) and Customary Authorities and the unity such resistance generated amongst all women's groups in New Caledonia.

This article argues that the roughly concurrent debates on parity in France and New Caledonia did not parallel each other. The storyline in France was one of resistance (from some feminists and many men in the institutionalized bureaucratic political establishment) accompanied by fairly widespread public acceptance. Women in France, for the most part, supported parity. However, the debate on the law in France produced some splits amongst women, particularly within the socialist wing of the feminist movement. Thus, there was much more resistance amongst women to application of the law on parity in France than in New Caledonia. Traditionally French feminists have been strongly allied to the political left. Some French feminists were uneasy about supporting a constitutional reform measure that also received the support of women and men on the other side of the political spectrum. Given the relatively greater size and population in metropolitan France as well as greater diversity in the feminist movement, it was harder to prompt discipline and loyalty amongst women's groups in France.

Though there have often been politically charged differences between women's groups in the Southern Province (where the majority of the population are caldoche-white settlers) and those in the Northern Province and the Loyalty Islands (where most people are Kanaks), a greater sense of solidarity developed amongst women's groups in New Caledonia. The female voice was highly important in enhancing participatory and representative democracy in geographically isolated New Caledonia and seems to have been a major factor in forging unity amongst women's groups. The feminist movement in New Caledonia is, for the most part, non-existent. Only a few women's groups associate themselves with a feminist movement. Many women in New Caledonia (especially Kanak women) shun any association with feminism or a larger Women's Liberation Movement. Their narratives suggest support for parity was not based on ideological identification with feminism. Rather, they insinuate pragmatic unity to enhance the airing of an array of female voices on representative bodies as well as deal with a colonial legacy of invisibility of most women (especially Kanak women) in the public and political arena.

Facially similar laws applied in different contexts often produce disparate impacts. The disparate impact of parity in France and New Caledonia is a testament to this theory. This article examines the impact of this law on the political participation of women in France as well as its impact on women in New Caledonia.

This piece argues that the attempt to achieve equality of representation through the law on parity (a formal legal mechanism) has yielded unremarkable results in France in securing mayoral positions or seats in the French Senate. This article outlines the machinations and resistance to parity from old line political hacks and institutionalized bureaucratic political parties historically hostile to women in government in France. Some political parties did not comply with the spirit, if not the letter, of parity. Their manoeuvrings reflected a strong reluctance to share the reins of power. The discouraging results in France demonstrate the limited utility of measures endorsed by liberal or moderate feminists. Such measures include working within existing patriarchal state structures in the hope that formal legal access will achieve substantive outcomes. The experience in France shows the pitfalls with a liberal feminist approach to gender parity in politics.

Some radical or socialist feminists have been dismissive of this type of constitutional law reform from its inception. Some socialist feminists would argue the experience in France proves the limited utility of facial reforms granting legal access as a means of redressing gender inequality. According to Socialist feminists, the underlying structural causes of gender inequality must be addressed (including race and class inequity and patriarchal structures) in order to meaningfully change gender inequality. Nothing short of a total overhaul of the social, economic and patriarchal structures are needed to address gender inequity. While the author believes this may be true, it is not a justifiable reason to reject lesser reforms.

On the other hand, the results of parity in New Caledonia demonstrate the potential of measures endorsed by moderate or liberal feminists in granting formal legal access. The application of parity in New Caledonia has spawned potentially significant substantive outcomes in terms of representation of women in political offices in New Caledonia. The 2004 Provincial elections marked a watershed in the post-contact period in New Caledonia. This was the first time that two women had been elected to the two most powerful positions in the executive government. In addition, the representation of women in Provincial government leaped dramatically from 16.7% prior to the implementation of parity to 46.3%.

The law on parity cannot be considered in isolation in New Caledonia. The policies and laws implemented by politically successful women in New Caledonia must be carefully examined to determine if such actions are generating an assortment of female voices on issues important to women (eg. domestic violence, alcohol abuse, rape, incest and female autonomy) and closing the gap on gender inequality in the socio-economic and cultural spheres of society. This is a central element for further feminist inquiry. There are many sceptics, particularly amongst some radical or socialist feminists in France.

This raises wider issues about the utility for women in serving in political institutions which have historically been a male preserve. There is an inherent conflict between effecting basic change in the historical dominant discourse about the role of women in public affairs and closing the gap in social, racial and class divisions and the need to collaborate with a historically repressive system. At a minimum, the greater representation of women in New Caledonia in provincial and executive government provides an opportunity for an array of female voices to be heard, thereby enhancing the prospects for the institutions of government to be truly participatory and representative. This includes Kanak women, who are more likely to approach issues with an appreciation of their historically subordinated role as an underclass of colonized peoples who have been subjected to racism and capitalism.

The constitutional change followed by the implementing legislation of parity allows for poststructuralist discourse and analysis. The change in the law has the potential to positively affect the historical dominant discourse about the unsuitability of women for public office. The law on parity presents a different version of social and political relations to the historical dominant discourse, which such discourse relegated women to an imperceptible role in public and political affairs. In so doing, it is possible that changes in the way women's public and political roles are viewed in a variety of foras may be positively affected so that the public come to understand the representation of women is crucial in facilitating the values of diversity and pluralism, both of which are considered important in a participatory democracy.

Nonetheless, the resistance to change in the Kanak community vividly illustrates the hurdles Kanak women continue to face in achieving greater gender parity in representation and influence in the political affairs of New Caledonia. The splits in the anti-independence movement reflected in the most recent Provincial elections will also be explored.4 The difficulties faced by the newly elected President of the New Caledonian executive branch, Mme. Themereau, in forming a government reveals the obstacles faced by all women in New Caledonia in attempting to implement the results of the recently held provincial elections in May 2004. Her experiences substantiate the claim that women face difficulties in entering a male dominated political culture. The climate for women to become part of the political colonial establishment remains very chilly at least amongst some men representing the full spectrum of political allegiances in New Caledonia.

This article concludes that the debates in both New Caledonia and France on parity followed different paths. Moreover, the facially similar laws applied in different contexts yielded different results. The factors accounting for these disparate results are complex and could include a vigorous and diverse feminist movement (representing the whole gamut of feminist theory from moderate or liberal to radical or socialist) in France in which different strands within such movement are driven by differences in ideological conviction. By contrast, the lack of a feminist movement in New Caledonia enabled women to unite on pragmatic grounds, recognizing the importance of female voices on the actual issues addressed by representative bodies as well as the type of laws passed. In addition, the relatively small population in geographically isolated New Caledonia made it easier to institute the provisions of parity, which received widespread publicity in the media and support from women's groups as well as funding from the metropole to ensure successful implementation. The initial lack of unity amongst women in France may be one factor in a complex mix (amongst several others including differences in population numbers, geographical location and size as well as distinctive historical, cultural, social and political influences) that help explain why the facially similar laws on parity applied in different contexts produced disparate impacts in France and New Caledonia.

At the very least, the law on parity has symbolic significance. The constitutional reform sends a message to all communities in France and New Caledonia that the French government recognizes a historical legacy of the invisibility of women in the public and political arena. The law on parity arguably evinces intent to redress this historical imbalance.
Original languageEnglish
JournalOxford University Comparative Law Forum
Volume2005
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2005
Externally publishedYes

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