PARIS – In France's upcoming local elections, one thing is certain: Women will win half the seats.
After years of largely failed efforts to get more women in politics, electoral officials devised a new rule for March 22 and March 29 elections. Instead of voting for a single candidate, citizens will vote for tickets, each composed of one man and one woman. Each winning ticket gets both of its candidates into the council.
The new system will change the face of the councils, where currently only 16 percent of members are women — and most members are white men over 60.
But one looming problem remains. There is no guarantee that women, once elected, will get equal access to the top positions of these councils. Only six of 101 existing councils are currently led by a woman.
And many voters still don't know about the new system.
The councils oversee France's "departments," regional bodies that manage such services as welfare payments, road maintenance and some schools. Voters are choosing 4,108 local council members across France, except in the cities of Paris and Lyon, which have a particular status.
"It's too bad to acknowledge that a law is needed to help women working their way in politics but that is probably a necessity," said Chloé Danillon, a 24-year-old running for the Socialist Party in the southern city of Carcassonne.
Without the voting reform, she said, "I wouldn't have been able to run for the position, not at my age."
"It's a chance for us and a chance for democracy because it means that the candidates, and so the elected ones, will look more like the French population," she said.
France gave women the vote only in 1944, a year before the end of World War II. While France has family friendly government policies that encourage women in the workforce, it has never had a woman president and has been slow to welcome women in political power.
No fewer than nine laws regarding gender parity in politics have passed in France in recent years, yet only a quarter of parliament members are women.
Camille Hollebecque, a 25-year-old Socialist candidate in Bordeaux, noted that political parties "had to find new faces" in order to be able to compose the new tickets.
And on those tickets, "it's often the man who is representing experience, and the woman youth and renewal," she said.
Female candidates report that they are often a source of surprise to the French voters, who are discovering the new voting system and sometimes mistakenly think the women are alternate candidates, instead of equal members of the ticket.
Laure Townley, 33, history and geography teacher running for the UMP party in the city of Annecy, near the Alps, says the new rule "is going to change quite a lot the atmosphere in local councils."
"The challenge will then consist of not being stuck in the functions traditionally attributed to women" such as social activities and youth policies — as opposed to oversight over finances, usually given to men, she explained.
The High Council of Equality Between Women and Men, a government-sponsored body, called last week for all political parties to promote better power-sharing between women and men.
Romain Sabathier, the council's general secretary, told the AP that the body would study whether the campaign is truly equal, asking questions like "Is the man more often in the foreground on the election posters? Do both candidates have an equal speaking time during political rallies?"
"We cannot accept such obvious inequalities in positions of power anymore," Sabathier said.