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30 October 2000

French women have it easier

In France, female politicians can be bright and beautiful. Not here, writesCelia Brayfield

By Celia Brayfield

So – farewell to Betty Boothroyd, the first female Speaker of the House of Commons, and hello to a ludicrous seven-hour deliberation to elect her male successor. Farewell also to Tess Kingham, the first of Blair’s “babes” to bale out of the House, and hello to Anne Campbell, at the head of a phalanx of female MPs, spearheading the movement for parliamentary reform.

No doubt Anne and her sisters in arms have had the warm encouragement of male colleagues who are eagerly anticipating their political neutralisation in this marginal cause. Lately, it has seemed as if the true adversaries in the British political system are not left and right, but women and men.

In France, it was au revoir to Martine Aubry, the employment and social affairs minister, and the most powerful woman in French politics, sidestepping to run for mayor of the socialist stronghold of Lille with the obvious goal of positioning herself optimally to become prime minister; and “enchantee” to her successor, the justice minister Elisabeth Guigou.

When the French PM, Lionel Jospin, announced Guigou’s successor as justice minister, the junior minister Marylise Lebranchu, he said he wanted to keep a woman in the justice department to retain a “more human, more concrete” influence. The same sentiment appeared over here when some prat at the BBC dismissed Boothroyd by calling her “gloriously down-to-earth”.

When Kingham called it quits, someone on the back benches opined that if Blair’s babes couldn’t stand the heat, they should get out of the kitchen. This prat was widely quoted, as prats of the male affiliation are, by the same media that pilloried Mo Mowlam for looking scruffy and hugging people, that also lambasted Harriet Harman for not looking scruffy and not hugging people, and that have, at various times, slagged off Diane Abbott on these issues both ways. Which is the least-win situation – to be manager of England’s football team or a woman in British politics? Think about it.

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It is, as history shows, very dangerous to be pretty if you are a woman at Westminster.

Remember the fate of Virginia Bottomley, ordered to command that political Charge of the Light Brigade, the dismemberment of the National Health Service. Pretty plus elegant equals death – just consider the butterfly span of Barbara Follett.

In France, instead, the media do not waste words on any statesperson’s personal appearance. Elegance is considered normal for a French politician of either sex, and prettiness, as in the case of Guigou, is no handicap either.

This is not to say that French society is free of sexism, or that French politicians hold back from attacking their female colleagues in terms of gender. In fact, Aubry holds the record for experiencing the most flagrant act of sexual harassment ever witnessed in active government, after a red bra was flung at her during question time.

The boys at Westminster just lack that Gallic panache. No British MP would handle a red bra, unless he planned to wear it himself or it had been bugged and planted on him by a seductress in the pay of the tabloid press. The House of Commons style is to attempt the intimidation of female MPs by skulking out of sight of the TV cameras and making melon-weighing gestures with their hands. As if they were even up to the job of buying a melon! Perhaps the babes should consider dangling a couple of grapes and a gherkin in retaliation.

Gillian Shephard recalled another backbencher who used to call her “Betty” because he claimed all female MPs looked the same. Somehow, the French women playing musical chairs this week do not look as if negation from such great height has formed their self-image.

Aubry, Guigou and Lebranchu smile joyously, stand confidently and speak eloquently. They radiate that sense of OK-ness which the French describe as feeling “good in your own skin”.

Their media celebrate them. In August this year, the French edition of Marie Claire magazine contrived a fashion spread stamped “Politiquement Incorrectes” with eight French female MPs styled to the eyebrows in holiday fantasy poses: in a Dior sundress in Rome, clam-digging on a beach in Corsica, shopping in Manhattan, in fluttering chiffon on a yacht and, in sequins by Paco Rabanne, rollerblading in Malibu. Guigou posed, in Kenzo leggings, on a donkey in Mykonos. Aubry was photographed in a casino, high-kicking between two hunky croupiers.

It was an awesome kick, only five degrees less in elevation than one would expect from the famously athletic ballerina Sylvie Guillem. I believe that Boothroyd, said to have been a Tiller Girl, might have been willing to show us quite a lot of her legs. But the wise woman is probably saving those fishnet-and-feathers photos for her memoirs. Let’s face it, neither her parliamentary colleagues nor our media would have been able to handle them. Pity, n’est-ce pas?

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