They don’t like to admit it, but a lot of politicians have a “woman problem”. The phrase has become common parlance in British politics. David Cameron is widely considered to have a “woman problem” after patronising comments such as “calm down, dear”, and a raft of austerity policies made in the absence of women that have disproportionately hurt women voters. Recent polling data shows that women are more likely than men to vote Labour and less likely to vote Conservative. They are less likely to vote for UKIP, with Nigel Farage’s ill-chosen comments on breastfeeding doing little to help his party’s image with women. Labour have also struck the wrong note with women after using a bright pink bus to promote politics to women. The Lib Dems face a host of problems including an all-male front bench, prospective wipe-out of their female MPs, and the Lord Rennard scandal.
While David Cameron might be worried about appealing to women voters, there are two woman problems he doesn’t have. The first is domestic; Samantha Cameron is an asset to her husband and their relationship appears to be beyond reproach. The second is political; while Theresa May is still the favourite to succeed Cameron as party leader, there is no credible threat from a female-led political party in the coming election.
David Cameron thus offers a striking contrast to French president François Hollande. In terms of women’s representation, France is currently doing better than the UK. They have (a few) more women in parliament (currently 26.5%) and, unlike Cameron, Hollande kept his promise to have more women in government. Excluding the (male) prime minister, the French government and cabinet have comprised 50% women since Hollande was elected president in 2012. Hollande also reinstated a fully-fledged women’s ministry, led by a member of cabinet. With women highly visible in decision-making roles, Hollande has evaded claims of ignoring and mistreating women voters.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Hollande has no “woman problem”. Far from it. He has several. His first problem is both personal and political; his girlfriends keep getting him into trouble. For nearly thirty years, he was in a relationship with Ségolène Royal, the mother of his four children. They had separated by the time she ran for the presidency in 2007, although their separation was only announced formally after the end of her campaign. He had left her for a journalist, Valérie Trierweiler. In 2012, having lost the presidential nomination to Hollande, Royal gave him her public backing. In return, he supported her candidacy in the legislative elections held shortly after his presidential victory. Then came the devastating blow – in a fit of jealously, Trierweiler tweeted her support for Royal’s opponent, who went on to win the seat. Hollande’s carefully crafted image of a calm, presidential figure (in contrast to his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, whose frenetic style was underpinned by a divorce and whirlwind remarriage while in office) was undone in 140 characters. His poll ratings took a tumble. And the damage continued; in early 2014 it emerged that he was having an affair with an actress, precipitating his break up with Trierweiler. She took her revenge later that year, publishing memoirs that hit Hollande where it most hurt: politically. She painted him as a snob who despised poor people — a devastating critique for a Socialist president. His poll ratings tumbled further.
A very different woman has compounded this woe for Hollande. While the centre-right UMP party has wobbled under its own leadership crises, the far-right Front National has gone from strength to strength under the leadership of Marine Le Pen. She has worked hard to “detoxify” the party’s image and has lent a rejuvenated, modernised and more approachable face to the party. She has helped to bring more women voters to the traditionally male-dominated party, and the FN are currently enjoying record performances in the polls. More than a third of voters now see the FN as a credible choice, and Le Pen tops polls for the first round of the 2017 presidential election. While she would certainly lose in the second round, her qualification would likely come at the expense of Hollande, adding humiliation to the pain of defeat.
Can women voters save the day for Hollande? The likely answer is ‘no’. While Hollande has not excluded them à la Cameron or abused them DSK-style, nor has he earned their unqualified support. His government, while respecting gender parity, has women mostly in less prestigious, stereotypically “feminine” portfolios, while most of the heavy-hitting top jobs have gone to men. The women’s ministry was downgraded after two years and buried within the much larger Ministry for Social Affairs, Health and Women’s Rights. Perhaps most importantly, his infidelity and commitment phobia in his personal relationships are mirrored by indecisiveness and weakness in his political leadership.
Why should politicians worry about women? Several reasons. First, women are the majority of the electorate. Second, women largely want the same things as men: strong leadership and a healthy economy. And third, it’s simply good politics. Utilising all the talent within your party and ensuring that your policies and personal conduct do not marginalise large groups of voters is basic common sense. So why do politicians find it so hard?