Mixed prospects for France's bold experiment with male-female parity in local elections

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Despite a low-key start to the campaign to elect councils for France's départements or counties later this month, new rules for these elections do herald genuine changes in French local politics. For the first time there will be strict male-female parity among those elected, the new councillors will be noticeably younger and the age-old tradition of combining both a local and a parliamentary post is starting to fade. But as Mathieu Magnaudeix reports, this welcome progress risks being largely undermined by the fact that the départements themselves, which date from the time of the French Revolution, are increasingly being marginalised by the ascendancy of regions and metropolitan areas. Indeed, voters will go to the polls not even knowing what powers the councillors they elect will have in the future.

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The campaign for France's next round of local elections on March 22nd and 29th has barely begun and already the prospects look fairly bleak for the mainstream political parties and especially the ruling Socialist Party. Abstention is forecast to reach new peaks. And this year for the first time all councillors in the nation's départements or counties are up for election at the same time, giving these polls a national slant against a backdrop of mistrust and dissatisfaction with the major parties. The Left, which currently runs 60 out of the 100 or so départements, is expected to take a beating, with the ruling Socialist Party likely to be singled out for particular punishment by the electorate.

But a glance at the list of candidates compiled by the interior ministry, which can be seen here in Excel format, shows the elections will bring a significant number of fresh faces to local politics. And for the first time they will return exactly the same number of men and women to local authority seats – 2,050 of each. The number of cantons that make up each département has been halved so that each canton is larger with redefined boundaries, and in each, electors will vote for a candidate list made up of a male-female pairing.

Until now this tier of local authorities, previously called general councils –
conseils généraux in French - and now to become departmental councils ('conseils départementaux'), was almost exclusively male. Women currently comprise 13% of general councillors, and in 12 départements out of 101 the figure is under 10%. Only five general councils are presided over by women. After these elections, the departmental councils will be the only representative bodies in France to have equal numbers of men and women, far ahead of the National Assembly – the lower house of the French Parliament, the Senate, the upper house, or regional councils. This equality comes fully 15 years after the first law on male-female parity was passed, and has had to be imposed on the system, as financial penalties against the political parties had failed to achieve the desired result.