Presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse began a live interview with one of France’s most popular television hosts by going on the offensive, declaring she nearly canceled the appearance because of sexual assault allegations against him.
“I want to say very clearly that if these accusations are true they’re serious and must be condemned,” Pécresse said to veteran presenter Jean-Jacques Bourdin, surrounded by an audience of voters. The BFMTV journalist, 72, was accused publicly of assaulting a younger female colleague, although he denied wrongdoing.
“The fight against sexual harassment and violence against women is a personal one for me,” Pécresse continued. “For too long, society has closed its eyes and sought to minimize the issue,” she added, vowing this would change if she became president.
The dramatic moment sparked a torrent of coverage on the merits and excesses of the #MeToo movement, which has faced some resistance in France but led to revelations about a slew of TV stars, politicians and intellectuals.
It showed how the female candidate factor and women’s issues could play into the battle to unseat President Emmanuel Macron in April.
Macron was elected with strong support from women voters, and made gender parity a priority in his newly created party and government, but that support has faltered.
“I think the women’s card will be important to this election,” said Chloé Morin, a political analyst and author of the upcoming book. We Get The Politicians We Deserve. “Pécresse showed that she will not hesitate to play it, and the other women candidates will too in their own ways.”
Not only are there more women candidates than in the past, but two of them, Pécresse and the far-right’s Marine Le Pen, are leading contenders to make the run-off against Macron.
Pécresse, a conservative politician known for her traditional social views symbolized by her past opposition to gay marriage, has begun to speak more frequently about her experience as a woman in politics, using it to differentiate herself and create a buzz around her candidacy.
Pollsters said the positioning could help her attract some centrist or leftwing voters if she makes the second round in a potentially close runoff against Macron.
The female factor is also affecting the duel on the far-right between Le Pen and anti-immigration polemicist Eric Zemmour, who has markedly lower approval ratings among women, potentially hurting his chances of making the second round.
Zemmour, who has espoused traditional masculinity and criticized the feminist movement, has faced sexual harassment allegations from several women, which he has denied. In his book The French Suicide, he wrote nostalgically about the days when a man could grope a woman without being hit with a lawsuit.
In contrast, Le Pen has performed better with women to close the historical gap that existed when her father was in charge of the far-right movement she now leads.
Bourdin was suspended from duties a few days after the Pécresse interview last month. In their exchange, he said: “I have decided not to express myself on this topic, but I contest the allegations reported by the media and will let the justice system do its work.”
The women’s vote in France has evolved over the decades since they got the vote in 1944 – much later than the UK in 1918 or the US two years later – and is not a uniform bloc, according to sociologist Janine Mossuz-Lavau.
In the 1950s, women voted less than men and were more conservative, but by the 1970s they had equal participation and shifted leftward. Since the 1980s, their political choices have been more influenced by education, geography and economic status than by gender.
Women’s voting patterns could play out differently this time, said Louise Jussian, an Ifop analyst who in October polled 2,000 women on their views on the election. Younger women viewed defending women’s rights and fighting sexism as key, with 86 per cent of under-25s putting it as their top issue, roughly double the level for women overall.
“It’s the first election after #MeToo, which has put issues of women’s rights and feminism on the agenda,” Jussian said.
French women have in recent years fled to speak out more about being harassed, and prisoners have also criticized the failures of the justice system to properly investigate murder and rape against women.
About 120 women have been killed by their partners in France each year since 2015, according to interior ministry figures, and more than 200,000 incidents of domestic violence occur annually, with less than 20 per cent of them resulting in a police complaint.
Measures introduced under Macron have included outlawing harassment, tackling the gender pay gap, setting the age of consent at 15, and improving police and health services to victims of violence.
Yet many feminist advocates turned against the president in 2020 when he named Gérald Darmanin as interior minister even though he was under investigation after one woman accused him of rape, and another of sexual harassment. Darmanin has maintained his innocence, and one case has been dismissed, while the other is ongoing.
Marylie Breuil, an activist with the feminist NousToutes movement, likened Macron’s record on women’s issues to an “empty shell”. “Not enough money is budgeted to the promises [so] we cannot fight domestic violence effectively, ”she said.
A December poll by Harris Interactive showed the average voter put “equality between women and men” roughly half way down their election priorities list, far behind consumer purchasing power, coronavirus and security.
Yet the fact that much about women’s daily lives remained unchanged despite the #MeToo movement jolt had “opened up a political space to talk about these issues,” said Pierre-Hadrien Bartoli, a researcher at Harris.
This was why the Bourdin confrontation resonated well for a candidate who hoped to become France’s first woman president, he added.