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Op-Ed

'La Republique' is a Woman, But Can a Woman Win the Presidency?

Anene Ejikeme, May 4, 2007

Probably the most famous image of Marianne is the 1830 painting by Eugene Delacroix "Liberty Leading the People.

How come the image of the French Republic is a woman,"Marianne," but no woman has ever been elected president of France? Good old fashioned sexism no doubt has a lot to do with it.

When Segolene Royal decided to run for her party's nomination, one of her colleagues asked, "Who will look after the children if Ms. Royal runs for election?" Another declared, "The campaign is not a beauty contest."

Ms. Royal did eventually win her Party's nomination and has just won the right to compete for the position of "Madame la presidente." The first round of the French presidential elections eliminated ten candidates, leaving just Ms. Royal and Mr. Sarkozy, who will face each other in new elections.

If Segolene Royal wins the French presidential elections she will become the first real life "Marianne."

Marianne is the national symbol of France. A sort of French Uncle Sam. Marianne represents France in all its republican ideals: liberte, egalite and fraternite.

Every town hall in France has a bust of Marianne in its hallway. Marianne's profile is on the official seal of France, and on stamps, French currency and in statutes in French villages and towns.

Every few years mayors from all over France select a French woman who will be used as the model for Marianne. The most famous Marianne is undoubtedly the actress Brigitte Bardot. Catherine Deneuve is another former Marianne. More recent choices have produced controversies. Model Laetitia Casta caused a patriotic furor when she moved to England while serving as the first Marianne of the new millenium. The current Marianne, a talk show host, a sort of French Oprah-wannabe, is considered by some as too "ordinary." She made matters worse when she said she did not subscribe to the pursuit of equality as an ideal.

According to French Embassy official website, "Marianne is present everywhere in France and holds a place of honor in town halls and law courts. ... Marianne is considered as the most prominent depiction of the French Republic."

Although there are numerous stories and legends about the creation of Marianne and her early history, most agree that Marianne was created during the French Revolution. The Revolution overthrew the old ways not only in the political, social and economic realms, but also brought in new images to replace the old outmoded ones.

Probably the most famous image of Marianne is the 1830 painting by Eugene Delacroix "Liberty Leading the People." In it Marianne is a stout, bare-breasted, full-figured Amazonian waving a tricolor. Clearly, for Marianne strength and leadership are not incompatible with being a woman.

The tradition of a Marianne whose femininity is celebrated has continued through the ages. The busts of Marianne seen in every town hall in France emphasize her feminine attributes.

Is France ready for a real-life Marianne and not just a real life woman posing for a statute?

In two weeks, we will find out if the voters of France are ready to transform Mariane from art to life.

If the sexism shown by Royal's colleagues is any indication, we probably shouldn't hold our breath.

Whether or not Ms. Royal wins the presidential elections, the very fact that a woman is standing as the candidate for one of France's major parties is significant. Whatever happens in the elections, France's mayors ought to make Segolene the next Marianne.

Anene Ejikeme, a historian, social commentator and columnist, is based in San Antonio, Texas.

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