Gen­der Bash in France

The Washington Post Sunday - - Letters To The Editor - Jim Hoagland

PARIS — 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.

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