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Can France Bring a Feminist Foreign Policy to the G7?

Hannah Bettsworth, G7 Research Group
Feburary 23, 2019, updated March 13, 2019

Canada is well known for adopting a feminist foreign policy, and it designated advancing gender equality and women's empowerment as one of the five main themes for its G7 presidency in 2019. Canada created the Gender Equality Advisory Council and France has committed to furthering its role throughout its G7 presidency in 2019, as well as making gender equality and education a priority for its Biarritz Summit in August.

But what is a feminist foreign policy, and how does France measure up?

First, as feminism is a diverse concept, so too is feminist foreign policy. Christine Alwan and S. Laurel Weldon describe it as "a course of action towards those outside national boundaries that is guided by a commitment to gender equality … and that seeks to solve problems of male dominance, gender inequality and the devaluation and denigration of those who do not conform to traditional gender stereotypes." However, what is gender inequality?

Alwan and Weldon trace different theoretical strands of feminist thought in order to produce a specific score for the countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, based on indicators of feminist foreign policy. These indicators cover various aspects, often disputed, of what it means to have a feminist foreign policy:

Canada, Sweden and the United States top Alwan and Weldon's list, produced in 2017, with France coming in 10th of 30 countries studied (see Table 1). Canada and Sweden explicitly have feminist foreign policies, and the United States prior to the election of Donald Trump — notably with Hillary Clinton as secretary of state — had made substantial advances on putting gender at the heart of its foreign policy.

At 2.2% in 2014, France sat toward the upper end of military spending as a proportion of GDP, higher than all other G7 countries bar the United States. This is not enough to explain its ranking — the United States was second only to Israel, and yet retained a high ranking overall. This may partially be because of its chart-topping levels of average yearly aid spending on gender inequality, whereas France came 17th overall and had the lowest spending in the G7 (including when these figures were relative to GDP). With regard to treaty ratifications, aid spending and gender criteria for asylum, France again failed to make the top 10. It lagged behind most of the G7 members, coming in 14th, with Japan in 25th place. In terms of women's participation in high-level foreign policy decision making, military service and combat, as well as CEDAW ratification and a national action plan for UNSCR 1325, France was in 12th position, this time outperforming Japan, Italy and the United Kingdom.

It is not that France is not committed to gender equality. It has made fighting inequality the key priority of its G7 presidency, with a specific focus on gender equality at home and abroad. It convened the first meeting of its Conseil Consultatif pour l'égalité entre les femmes et les hommes in February. The Biarritz Summit will focus on ensuring girls get an education, developing a package of laws based on best practice for gender equality, setting up the Simone Veil prize to recognize those working to improve women's freedom and new initiatives to reduce gender inequality in the workplace.

France also has an international strategy for equality between men and women, where it seeks to improve its gender equality work from 2018 to 2022. The principles of the strategy include taking gender into account in all French foreign policy, not just development, but also politics, economics, public diplomacy, education and culture. Its approach will be based on human rights, and it will carry out gender mainstreaming. France's gender advocacy will be intensified, and gender equality will be put at the heart of ministerial institutions.

So, why is France not ranked as highly as some other G7 members in having a feminist foreign policy? On the specific criteria measured by Alwan and Weldon, it has not done enough. For example, according to the Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership regarding women's participation in high-level foreign policy decision making, France has had one female foreign minister and one female defence minister: the same person, Michèle Alliot-Marie. Florence Parly has since become defence minister, but France still has some catching up to do. The United States, for example, has had three women as foreign ministers since 1997. France's aid spending on gender equality was also particularly low — from 2002 to 2012 its average yearly spend was USD 17 million, which is equivalent to less than 0.1% of GDP.

It is to be hoped that, over the course of its G7 presidency, France will extend its expressed desire to learn from other countries on gender equality to the field of international relations. It has the potential to improve its position in the rankings by developing a more ambitious aid policy on gender equality and increasing women's representation in high-level foreign policy. It could signal its commitment to combatting inequality by joining Canada in explicitly having a feminist foreign policy. Over the course of its G7 presidency, France will seek to learn about best practices on gender equality worldwide, which would provide a perfect opportunity to make sure strategy becomes reality.

The recent developments with regard to the Conseil Consultatif are a step in the right direction. France has explicitly engaged in "feminist diplomacy" and has followed it up with action by creating a €120 million per year fund for assisting gender equality and feminist movements. By increasing its aid spending in this area and by appointing a diverse range of women to its council, France seems to be making the most of this opportunity to improve its position in the rankings.

Table 1: Indicators of Feminist Foreign Policy

Country Score out of 10
Canada 8.7
United States 7.5
Germany 7.2
France 6.3
United Kingdom 6.1
Japan 5.7
Italy 5.6

Source: Christine Alwan and S. Laurel Weldon (2017). What Is Feminist Foreign Policy? An Exploratory Evaluation of Foreign Policy in OECD Countries. Prepared for 2017 European Conference on Politics and Gender, University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

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Tyler McMurdoHannah Bettsworth is a compliance analyst for the G7 Research Group. In her final semester at Sciences Po in Paris studying European affairs specializing in foreign policy, she currently works for a think tank monitoring legal and political developments in the EU rule of law, migration and development policy as well as conducting her own research. Her research interests include development economics and international aid, migration policy responses, security and defence, civil liberties, human rights, and equalities policy. She previously worked for the UK Department for International Development on disability mainstreaming in disaster risk reduction, and is a strong advocate for equal rights.

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