Out for the count

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 May, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 May, 1994, 12:00am

ISN'T this supposed to be a time for celebrating equality at the ballot box? In South Africa the first non-racial elections have finally taken place and apartheid has become, at last, a relic for the history books. True? Well, no, not it seems if you ask French women.

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of French women winning the vote, a landmark event many of them are reluctant to celebrate. For not only did France take an embarrassing length of time to grant women suffrage (France was more than 50 years behind the first country, New Zealand), but women have made minimal political progress ever since.

In 1945, French women held five per cent of the seats in France's first post-war parliament. Today it's six per cent, barely any higher, giving rise to dark comments from some French women about a new type of political apartheid - a sexual one.

France isn't the only country in Europe where politically women are still little more than a token presence. Women, 53 per cent of Europe's population, make up a mere 11 per cent of the European Union's national parliaments.

France, at six per cent is one of the worst offenders. Denmark, with 33 per cent, and the Netherlands, 25 per cent, are the top performers who help to make the average a little more respectable. Even the European Parliament itself, that bastion of artificial quotas, only fills one in 10 seats with females.

The reasons for the inequality are various. In Britain, a standard complaint from women MPs is that the parliamentary system is geared towards men, whether it's a lack of creches and ladies toilets at Westminster or anti-socially late night debates which make motherhood a nightmare.

There's also the more insidious issue of discrimination. The British parliament has been described as one of the most exclusive men's clubs in the land. To survive in such a male-dominated atmosphere, women have to tread a delicate tightrope - male enough in their behaviour to be accepted as ''one of the boys'' but female enough not to be criticised as ''unfeminine''.

So what's the answer? The European Conference on Women's Rights debated this long and hard when it met late last month, but although it came to the conclusion that women needed at least 30 per cent of seats to make an impact on political decisions, it didn't come up with any startling new ways of getting them there.

Women-only short-lists and quotas within main political parties have been roundly denounced as patronising and likely to lose rather than gain votes. Perhaps Sweden has the answer. This spring it launched its first all-woman party, devised from the start to take a female perspective on politics and to challenge existing political methods with new ways of doing things.

Maybe if that succeeds, in the next 50 years women and politics really could come together. Even in France.