This is the second in a series: “The Macron Con”, also called “Why Emmanuel Macron isn’t a liberal hero”. Each week, I’ll examine an area of the new French president’s politics that doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Read episode 1: Macron’s unhealthy obsession with symbolism.
President Macron is a feminist. That’s, at least, according to him. “I am a feminist,” he claimed on 2 December last year, then a presidential candidate, at the Women’s Forum for Economy and Society. He then added that to him, the “most important” thing was to be “a feminist recognised by women as such”. And women? Well, not all of them do – because while Macron’s vocal support of feminism as a cause is obviously important, his actions paint a more complex reality.
Days after his election, Macron declared he really wished his prime minister would be “a woman”. This was his choice entirely – the newly-elected President names the prime minister, who names their cabinet – and yet he picked a man, Edouard Philippe. “I never actually expected him to pick a woman,” says Fatima El Ouasdi, director of Politiqu’elles, a French non-profit fighting against sexism in politics. She says she never did because, when Macron discussed the PM’s nomination without mentioning names, “he said ‘he’ everytime”.
Feminists were similarly frustrated a month later, when several MPs from his party declared their support for a female Speaker. The party, En Marche!, having just won a parliamentary majority, the possibility of parliament electing France’s first female Speaker was entertained. Two women and a man from En Marche! ran. The man, François de Rugy, won. To El Ouasdi, it demonstrates a “lack of political will”. As she puts it: “It wasn’t a priority for the party, otherwise it would have been done.”
In theory, equality is Macron’s favourite hobbyhorse; but in practice, “we’re not there yet at all,” says El Ouasdi. His cabinet has been praised for its equality – it is composed of men and women in equal measure – but out of four of the most important ministries, only one, Defence, was given to a woman, Sylvie Goulard. When she left the cabinet in a reshuffle following trouble in her party MoDem, half the most important ministries (Justice and Defence) rightfully went to women. But to El Ouasdi, in the French government as well as in general politics, “quantitative equality isn’t the same as qualitative”.
That’s especially true in parliament, where 224 women were elected as MPs in May – the highest score ever, but still lower than their 353 male counterparts. Macron’s party proudly announced it was running with as many female candidates as male; but this has actually been the law since 1999.
The PR picture was perfect, though. During the campaign, when En Marche! called for candidate applications and received more from men than women, Macron took to social media to call for women to step up. The French feminist group Osez le Féminisme called it a “PR coup”: “He was essentially calling for women to apply the law,” said spokeswoman Claire Serre-Combe. “It’s nothing new.” Political parties in the past have often sent more female candidates to constituencies they expect to lose, so Macron’s only innovation was to send female candidates for winnable seats, which looks less like proactive feminism and more like not discriminating on the basis of gender.
Macron has made many pledges for equality and has called women’s rights “an absolutely fundamental subject of our society’s vitality, economy, and of our democracy”. His vocal support shows a will to make feminism “a great national cause”, El Ouasdi says, but pledges have not all been kept. “He promised a ministry for women’s rights,” she says, “And in the end we got a state secretary for equality between men and women, which isn’t the same.”
These deceptive pledges may lie in Macron’s own vision of feminism. He has declared: “I believe in alterity [a philosophical concept of otherness], and true alterity for a man, is the woman. I am profoundly feminist because I love what is irreducible in the other that is woman.” Such a comment is “reductive” in its definition of women and “problematic” in its exclusion of LGBT+ people, El Ouasdi says.
Osez Le Féminisme has said in a press release that the group remains “vigilant and mobilised” against “liberal policies that aggravate casualisation of women’s lives.” Like most of Macron’s critics, French feminists worry that the president’s project will not help the working class. “It would be good if he were more concerned about poor female workers and housewives,” says El Ouasdi. She hopes the law will recognise women’s own difficult working conditions, for instance by adapting cleaners’ schedules to working hours.
Whether Macron will act on his pledges, including making “a great national cause” to fight violence against women, remains “to be seen”, El Ouasdi says. But it may be difficult, as the upcoming budget will see cuts in all ministries – with women’s refuges feared to be deprived of 25 per cent of their current subventions. State secretary for Equality Marlène Schiappa has called “fake news” on the numbers, but confirmed cuts will happen. “Where’s the great national cause, @EmmanuelMacron?” tweeted French feminist Caroline De Haas.
Macron can keep claiming he is a feminist. But as long as his unkept promises pile up, his feminism will resemble your college boyfriend’s – signs up for gender studies class, quite likes the concept, still ends up moaning about women’s rights activists being “too feminist”. Not cool, bro.