A couple years ago, when Angela Merkel was on the verge of becoming the first female Chancellor of Germany, I remember reading an article from a German magazine (der Spiegel I think it was) candidly asking if one could not consider voting for her specifically on account of her gender. The gist of their argument was that, electing a woman to such an office was in itself a considerable social advance, possibly overshadowing any measure either candidate could ever enact once elected.
It is a bit of a provocative argument, but still worth considering. Especially if you have your doubts about the effective influence of this election’s outcome on important matters of economic or international policies.
However, the comparison between both women ends there. They are from slightly opposite sides of the political board and, under their common gender, are perceived very differently by partisans and opponents alike. Angela Merkel, while I am not well-versed enough in German politics to give an extensive appraisal of her skills, is a very capable, respected politician. There is not the slightest suspicion that she may ever have relied on her gender as a prop to get by, quite the opposite: I remember reading people emphasizing her “butchy” manners (equally unnerving, as chauvinist clichés go, but at least not in the way you may expect).
The problem with the current French presidential race is that it has become extremely hard to tell whether one’s impression of a candidate is somehow attuned with reality and verifiable facts or just the result of widespread journalistic bias. Of course, this is a problem everywhere: Fox TV and other Murdoch-style news outlets do a much worse job at imitating journalistic integrity than most French media. In France, the bias is usually more subtle: few media (outside of those ostensibly labeled as following one party or the other) will directly slander their political opponents. It is more of a meticulous, careful selection of the news they report on and the tone they adopt, so as to finally envelop each politician in a caricatural persona that fits a specific political intent.
I do realize I just described the way politics and media work everywhere in the world, the thing is: the ratio of perceived versus actual personal and political traits here is simultaneously very high and rarely acknowledged by most people, it seems.
This is true of all candidates and works in either direction: I previously mentioned how Ms. Royal’s opponent, Mr. Sarkozy, is hyperbolically depicted by his opponents as some neo-fascistic brute, which is simply inaccurate: for all his sitting on the conservative right side of France’s political board, he objectively ranks left of both Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair on major issues and policies, yet any topical discussion with your average Frenchman will invariably veer into Godwin territories (unless your interlocutor is pro-Sarkozy, in which case he will hail the man as a savior of all things righteous and law-abiding in a society crumbling under the weight of rampant youth crime and illegal immigration). I dislike the man and his knack for populist securitarian rhetoric, as much as the next freedom-loving fool, but he is no Benito Mussolini, not even a Georges W. Bush.
But back to Ségolène.
What do I think of her?
When I hear Ms. Ségolène Royal talk of her projects, when I read her interviews, watch her answer questions or simply humor journalists with unsubstantial banter, all I see is one incredibly unseasoned, incompetent, borderline-stupid politician with the stuck-up delivery of a grade-school teacher and the mien that goes with (you really expect her to slap you on the wrist with a ruler at any moment). I see shameless use of her image as a maternal figure, I see a candidate who has suddenly emerged to the forefront 10 months ago and won her party’s primaries, not on a solid program, but because her pleasant looks, relative political freshness and high poll ratings, made her at the time the most serious contender to beat Nicolas Sarkozy.
In a word, I see practically every single misogynist stereotypes about women in politics made flesh.
Now you understand why I might be questioning my own perception through the French media. This is all depressing and ever so slightly suspicious. But unfortunately I still think this is not all made-up impressions and journalistic bias: she is that incompetent.