France’s Marine Le Pen: The illusion of feminism

The far-right leader is using her gender to give the National Front a veneer of respectability and modernity.

Marine Le Pen campaign
Although stopping short from presenting herself as a 'feminist', Le Pen has tried to appeal to French women by looking and behaving in a more approachable way, writes Poirier [Sebastien Nogier/EPA]

Is the gender issue looming large in the French Presidential elections or, as with most things, the French do it differently? Unlike in the US, for instance, where Marine Le Pen’s gender and its impact on the electorate’s choice would be discussed at length, hardly any political analysts in France have commented on the fact that Marine Le Pen’s chances of becoming the first female French president may be enhanced or undermined by her very gender.

In the case of Marine Le Pen, the gender issue is a complex one. Its impact being intertwined with other factors such as generation, policies, personal history, and character. Nevertheless, her being a woman, and one born in 1968, has allowed her to profoundly transform the party from the inside and the outside. Some will arguably say that all she has done is to create the convincing illusion that she has detoxified and modernised the party but the fact is that she has considerably broadened the party’s electoral base.

During the time Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, was at the helm of the party – between 1972 and 2011 – the party’s electorate was predominantly male and old, with twice as many male votes for every female vote. Jean-Marie Le Pen, a former paratrooper, particularly scared women voters. Under his leadership, the party was in bed with ultra-Catholics and opposed, for instance, abortion rights which Le Pen senior called “genocide”. For him, women were child bearers and homemakers. His wife and mother of his three daughters, Pierrette, famously posed naked on the cover of Playboy in 1987 to get back at him after their acrimonious divorce.

Modernising the National Front

Since she took over from her father, Marine Le Pen managed to close the gender gap, as well as the age gap. During her first presidential bid in 2012, when she scored 17.9 percent of the vote (6.4 million votes), the number of male and female voters who chose her party was almost equal.

In many ways, she has modernised her party. After all, her personal story shows a modern woman. She is a twice-divorced single mother of three who is personally pro-abortion rights and pro-gay rights. She certainly doesn’t scare female voters, young or old, the way her father did. In the last six years, the National Front’s stances on many women’s issues, such as abortion, have been toned down. There is no talk about repealling the abortion legislation or banning the pill any longer.

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Marine Le Pen is also rather shrewd whenever she talks about Islam. She does it often by mentioning the Islamic veil or the burqa. She talks about the oppression of imposing the veil and burqa on women. That way, she both invokes and exploits the French secular traditions and feminist fight against patriarchy. After the mass sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, in December 2016, Marine Le Pen invoked, for the first time, Simone de Beauvoir and Elizabeth Badinter, to attack open-door migration policies. In an opinion piece published in the French daily L’Opinion, she wrote: “I am revolted today by the unacceptable silence and, therefore, tacit consent of the French Left in the face of these fundamental attacks on the rights of women. I am scared that the migrant crisis signals the beginning of the end of women’s rights”.

‘Marine: Fake feminist’

Although stopping short from presenting herself as a “feminist”, she has also tried to appeal to French women by looking and behaving in a more approachable way. She may have inherited the forceful voice and physique of her father, but she chose to change the party’s logo, a flame, for a blue rose. On the poster for the second round campaign, she very unusually wears a skirt, and smiles, posing in front of bookcases. The poster’s slogan, “Choose France” shows that she is trying to appear as the Mother of the Nation. In fact, she is deliberately tapping into the national unconscious: the French Republic is represented by a female figure wearing the revolutionary red Phrygian cap known as Marianne, and best remembered in the Delacroix painting. Every town hall and state schools in France has a bust of Marianne and every stamp and French euro coin show her face or profile.

Recently, Marine Le Pen’s strategy has been to particularly target working-class women who may fear their poorly paid jobs are at risk from immigrants. French women being represented in the service proletariat may feel particularly inclined to vote for the anti-globalisation and protectionist Marine Le Pen. Of course, some feminists, such as followers of the Femen movement, who are based in Paris, try as often as they can to call her bluff. They regularly ambush Marine Le Pen during public events, conferences or public speeches with, for instance, the words “Marine: Fake Feminist” or “Le Pen Top Fascist” painted across their chests.

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The Femen and other French feminists insist that Le Pen is using women’s issues for xenophobic purposes, as a way to push forward an anti-immigrant agenda. In her 2017 political manifesto, Marine Le Pen develops 144 proposals in a 24-page long document. The word “women” only appears twice. For feminists, such fact is revealing enough.

In fact, as the skilled politician she is, Marine Le Pen has managed to use her gender to give the party a veneer of respectability, competence and modernity. If many French people can still see through the illusion, others, among them many women, have chosen to believe it. They may, however, not be numerous enough for Marine Le Pen to become France’s first female president.

Agnes Poirier is the UK editor for the French political weekly MARIANNE, and a political commentator for the British, American, Canadian, French and Italian press, and a regular contributor to the BBC, Sky News, and Al Jazeera. She is the author of ‘Touche, A French woman’s take on the English’

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.