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‘Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie?’: E.U. president Ursula von der Leyen denounces sexism in ‘sofagate’ incident

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on April 26 that she believes she was denied a chair next to Turkey's leader because she was a woman. (Video: European Commission)

One of Europe’s most powerful women delivered a searing and specific denunciation Monday of what she said was sexist treatment at the highest levels of global affairs — even after her title became madame president.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament that she believed that in a meeting with Turkey’s leader she had been denied a chair and equal billing alongside European Council President Charles Michel because he is a man and she is a woman.

Instead of a chair, von der Leyen was relegated to a lower-status sofa, across from the Turkish foreign minister whom she outranks. A video of von der Leyen’s surprised and clearly frustrated reaction upon seeing the seating arrangements went viral hours after the meeting.

Turkey’s leader met two E.U. presidents. The woman among them didn’t get a chair.

“I cannot find any justification for what I was treated in the European treaties. So I have to conclude that it happened because I am a woman. Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie?” von der Leyen said. “In the pictures of previous meetings, I did not see any shortage of chairs, but then again I did not see any women in these pictures either.”

Turkey's president left a top E.U. leader speechless on April 6 when he relegated her to a sofa instead of offering an equivalent seat to her male counterpart. (Video: European Commission)

Michel technically outranks von der Leyen in diplomatic protocol, but the two leaders typically receive coequal billing in meetings. In previous meetings between the two previous E.U. presidents, both of whom were men, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the three leaders have been seated equally.

Von der Leyen’s denunciation was notable at least in part because it confronted an alleged instance of sexism head-on, not long after it happened.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, perhaps the world’s most powerful female leader and a longtime von der Leyen ally, has taken a low-key approach to gender issues. And in a 2019 interview with Zeit, she said she had consciously declined to address the sexism she has experienced in office.

“That’s a fundamental approach,” Merkel said. “I believe that, as a politician, you have to be able to take it, that you can only do this job if you aren’t overly sensitive. You have to concentrate on the real issues. I merely take note of the rest.”

Von der Leyen, by contrast, told lawmakers on Monday that the women among them might recognize their own experiences in hers, even though they all had reached some of the most powerful places in politics.

“Honorable members, many of you will have made quite similar experiences in the past, especially the female members of this House. I am sure you know exactly how I felt. I felt hurt and I felt alone, as a woman and as a European,” von der Leyen said.

“Because it is not about seating arrangements or protocol. This goes to the core of who we are. This goes to the values our union stands for, and this shows how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals, always and everywhere,” she said.

Von der Leyen stopped short of specifying precisely whom she blamed for the incident: Michel, Erdogan or their teams — although officials familiar with her thinking have said she is frustrated with all of them. Turkish officials would have been responsible for the seating arrangements, but Michel’s advance team reviewed them and could have objected to them.

Michel has said that he regrets the optics and that he would have handled the situation differently in retrospect. But he said that in the moment, he wanted to avoid creating a diplomatic incident with Turkey and to focus on the agenda of the meeting, which included a focus on women’s rights and equality.