Gender Bash in France

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 29/04/07):

How does a macho conservative politician run against a Socialist feminist who has pegged much of her campaign to the gender issue? Very carefully if you are Nicolas Sarkozy and you are in the final week of a French presidential campaign that is yours to lose.

The tone of the campaign has sharpened and become more personal in the past two days. But even when he criticizes Ségolène Royal, Sarkozy is careful to express his "respect" for her "as a person and a leader." He predicts her programs will bankrupt France, but he explicitly rejects any intention to patronize her.

This gender correctness is not a matter of gallantry or politesse. It is smart campaign strategy. Royal won the Socialist Party nomination in large part because her male rivals mocked and underestimated her. They disliked her and, worse, doubted that a woman could beat any of them. Sarkozy is not repeating those mistakes.

As gender barriers in politics shrink and more women in more places become candidates for national leadership, male politicians everywhere will be facing similar challenges to go on the offense without appearing to be sexist. There is in this election a sense of change that does not apply to France alone.

Women who climb to the top have often played politics as a man's game, only more so. Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi were at least as tough and determined as their male rivals, and they made sure those qualities showed. The high level of mental combat and abrasiveness I encountered in interviews with each of them was exhausting.

Female leaders are freer to be themselves in politics now. For Hillary Clinton and Germany's Angela Merkel, this means acting as if their femininity is irrelevant to the policies they champion and the positions they seek. They are not widely identified as overcompensating with manly language or mannerisms. Nancy Pelosi goes further: She unblushingly emphasizes the maternal qualities of her leadership as speaker of the House.

Royal tests new limits of the politics of gender. Her campaign images and slogans have been chosen to emphasize that she is a she and would be the first French female president. Subliminal messages in campaign posters and tracts are far more important in France, where candidates have much less access to television time than do politicians elsewhere.

In those posters, Royal is made to resemble -- at least in the eyes of voters I unscientifically polled -- Joan of Arc, Mona Lisa, the Virgin Mary and/or Marianne, the symbolic revolutionary maiden who incarnates French nationalism much as a top-hatted, bearded Uncle Sam does for Americans.

The softening of Royal in the electorate's mind has been as deliberate and as necessary as the recasting of the tough-talking Sarkozy in the home stretch. She is schoolmarmish on the campaign stump and in person, fiercely demanding of her battered staff, and as coldly dismissive of her ex-rivals within the party as they once were of her. The daughter of a career military officer, Royal seems even to friends to be rigid and something of a martinet -- traits often attributed to Sarkozy as well.

At 53, Royal is the mother of four and the common-law partner of another leading Socialist politician. The state of the marriages and family life of both Royal and Sarkozy, 52, draw extraordinary amounts of speculation and gossip as voters prepare for next Sunday's ballot, though relatively little direct exposure in the media.

This diminishing but lingering caution about the private lives of public figures in France also shapes Sarkozy's restraint in attacking Royal's character. His ultimate test comes on Wednesday in a two-hour televised debate against Royal, who successfully made Sarkozy appear to be browbeating her in past televised encounters. Sarkozy preemptively is claiming that it is Royal who is using "brutal" campaign tactics against him this year.

So far voters are not dividing along Daddy Sarko and Mommy Sego lines in the booth. Exit polls suggest that Sarkozy won 33 percent of the votes cast by women for 12 candidates in the preliminary round a week ago, while Royal drew 27 percent.

Nor is Royal getting momentum from an effort to suggest that the world would be a much better place under a sisterhood-in-power of Merkel, Clinton and herself.

Merkel, the Christian Democrat chancellor, prefers Sarkozy's policies on overhauling the European Union's institutions. And when Royal's camp put out feelers to Clinton's staff last year about a high-profile meeting of the two in New York, a deafening silence persuaded Royal's aides to cancel her trip to the United States.

It used to be said that for Americans, foreign policy debates stop at the water's edge. Today, so does political sisterhood.