He has promised an equal number of men and women in cabinet, and a new ministry of women's rights. But will François Hollande turn out to the be president who finally took on the pervasive sexism in French politics, if as expected he wins Sunday's presidential election?

The Socialist frontrunner, who has been given a clear five-point lead in the final opinion poll of an increasingly vitriolic campaign, is under pressure to prove he will shake up his image of a middle-aged man surrounded by middle-aged men. Voting in the first round showed that women favoured the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy over the man bidding to becoming the first Socialist to win a presidential election since 1988.

Hollande has sought to portray himself as a feminist – and recently won the backing of a petition of more than 150 feminists. He has said he will reintroduce a ministry of women's rights and has promised an equal number of women and men in government if he wins. This would be historic. It was something Sarkozy promised in 2007, but never achieved, despite the media spotlight on figures such as the justice minister Rachida Dati.

Sarkozy shot back this week that it was not the number of women in government that matters but the seniority of their positions. "I appointed the first woman finance minister in France," he said of Christine Lagarde, now head of the International Monetary Fund. It is a charge Hollande is vulnerable to. In March, the Socialist candidate told women at his campaign headquarters: "It would be good in principle to have as many men as women in a government." He then added: "That is not to say the responsibilities would be the same."

Marie-Jo Zimmermann, an MP for Sarkozy's UMP party, and head of the women's rights delegation in parliament, called the comments "scandalous", warning women could not simply be relegated to junior cabinet posts.

Several women figures in Hollande's team are being tipped for key positions. Martine Aubry, the first woman leader of the Socialist party and a former minister for employment and solidarity, had been touted as a possible prime minister but is now seen as more likely to take a ministry rather than the top job. France has only had one woman prime minister, the Socialist Edith Cresson, who served for less than a year.

New young faces, who were children when the last Socialist president François Mitterrand came to power, include Aurélie Filippetti, a former ecologist and MP in Lorraine, who heads the culture team in Hollande's campaign, and Delphine Batho, an MP in western France, both of whom could take posts. Fleur Pellerin, a state auditor, who was born in South Korea, is Hollande's adviser on digital issues and is seen as an important diversity figure, as is Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, one of Hollande's spokeswomen who hopes to run for parliament in Lyon in June.

Ségolène Royal, Hollande's ex-partner who was defeated by Sarkozy in 2007, has had an increasing presence in the campaign and is tipped as a possible head of parliament, the first time the post would have gone to a woman.

Hollande has also promised to clamp down on equal pay for men and women, vowing harsh steps to enforce the law on political parties fielding equal numbers of men and women in parliamentary elections. Women MPs make up 18.5% of the French parliament, compared to 21% in the UK, 33% in Germany and 46% in Sweden.

Despite two men facing each other in the 6 May runoff, the campaign has not been devoid of the kind of creeping sexism that France had hoped to put behind it. Sarkozy raised feminist hackles this week when he observed that "a woman's life is more difficult than a man's because she has three lives: a mother's life, a working life, and a sentimental life" – as if men had no need to juggle the same responsibilities.

One MP in Sarkozy's ruling rightwing party called Hollande's partner, Valerie Trierweiler, a Rottweiler, before adding that that was "unfair to the dog" and commenting on the comparative ugliness of former women ministers in Sarkozy's government. Trierweiler was furious when her employer, the magazine Paris Match, put her on its cover under the headline "Hollande's charming asset". The Green candidate Eva Joly complained she had been the victim of ageism, sexism and xenophobia, calling herself the "Menopausal Norwegian woman". Sarkozy, when attacked over his bling habits at the start of his presidency, laid the blame on his ex-wife.

Women's groups have been pleased to find equality issues on Hollande's agenda but will be holding him to account. Hollande has now promised that one of his first priorities will be to pass a new law on sexual harassment.

© Guardian News and Media 2012

[François Hollande via Wikimedia commons]