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Laura Montecchio, Marianna Griffini
This article is part of the UNPOP series – Unpacking Populism, published on a monthly basis and edited by Cristiano Gianolla and Maíra Magalhães Lopes.
The success of populist radical right (PRR) parties is not a novelty. PRR parties around the globe have often amassed considerable electoral gains, including gaining seats in government. In the past few years, PRR parties in France, Italy, Sweden, and Hungary have garnered considerable consensus at general elections. What is novel about the recent electoral populist radical right success is the prominence of female party leaders, such as Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National – RN) who came close to winning the French presidential elections in 2022, and Giorgia Meloni (Fratelli d’Italia – FdI) who was appointed as Prime Minister of Italy in October 2022. However, even if female populist radical right leaders have achieved electoral success, contradicting the male-domination in politics, women in leadership position not necessarily propound gender equality and feminist stances.

Particularly emblematic of this new turn of the PRR is Marine Le Pen, frontwoman of the Rassemblement National, who polled more than 40% at the 2022 presidential elections and is enjoying increased popularity compared to the scarce reputation held by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, when he was at the helm of the former Front National (then renamed as Rassemblement National in 2018). Le Pen’s numerical defeat at the April 2022 presidential election did not cause her to fall into disrepute as it was followed by a resounding victory scored by the Rassemblement National at the French parliamentary elections in June 2022. In fact, Le Pen’s relentless success became patent in the 2022 parliamentary elections when Rassemblement National obtained 17.3% of the seats, an achievement defined by the French press as a personal victory for Marine Le Pen. Therefore, Le Pen attained her best electoral result ever at the 2022 elections to become President of the French Republic.

Screenshot of one of Le Pen’s tweets

Although globally, women in politics are still under-numbered in leadership positions compared to men, we can observe a slight shift in the French political panorama from a male-dominated arena to a more gender-diverse one with Le Pen leading the second most voted French party. The case of Le Pen, however, is emblematic. Despite being a woman in a leadership position, Le Pen has often been at odds with advancing gender equality and rights for women.

Supporting all women…
Marine Le Pen conveys the image of a female leader characterised by strength and self-determination. It is a case in point that she identifies herself as a completely “free woman”, claiming that she owes nothing to anyone, “neither to political parties, nor to bankers, or to big companies”. In affirming her women’s rights of self-determination and self-assertion, in the above-cited quotation, she also attacks the so-called political and economic elite that populist parties blame for neglecting the will of the people. The protection of women’s rights seems to be close to Le Pen’s heart. On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25, 2022), Le Pen tweeted:
“In this international day against violence against women, I have a thought for every woman victim of sexual or physical violence. We have one duty: protect them and sanction those who are guilty of such acts”.

A similar tweet was posted on 8 March 2023, for the International Women’s Day, in which Le Pen vocally restated the necessity to protect women’s rights and their dignity, as well as advancing equality.

Affirming women’s rights, though, is different from clearly being a feminist. Back in 2021, on French national television, Le Pen ambiguously proclaimed herself as a “feminist” who “does not express hostility towards men”, which results in a lukewarm pro-women’s rights affirmation complemented by the condemnation of the “unjust overall accusation against men”. Moreover, Le Pen’s lukewarm feminism presents slippages into the PRR reactionary values that are unquestionably not feminist. At the beginning of her career as a leader, Le Pen proposed that abortion should no longer be paid for by the national health system, presenting a more moderate approach to the issue than her father’s anti-abortions (and even anti-divorce) stances while keeping her pragmatism. In 2022, Le Pen openly denounced surrogacy as a “commercialization of women’s bodies that is unworthy of our civilization” (Twitter 06/04/2022; TikTok, 02/05/2023). Therefore, as argued by Geva, we posit that, although Le Pen has managed to convey a less radical image of the now-Rassemblement National, she has also been able to cling onto her PRR reactionary values, by remodeling her image from the one as a “political daughter” under her father, into the one as “mother of the nation”, who is depicted as a strong leader and a caregiver of “the people” who nurtures and supports the national in-group.

.. or only Western women?
Indeed, Le Pen’s pro-women’s rights narratives seem to have an ethno-cultural delimitation: Le Pen’s tweets and discourses between 2016 and 2023 have seen the salience of femonationalism increase relentlessly. What is femonationalism? It is the narrative, ideologically underpinned by nativism – the combination of nationalism and racism – according to which Islam suffocates women’s rights characteristic of Western culture and values, to which it poses a threat. We concur with Indelicato’s point about the fact that femonationalism is not paradoxical, as the PRR ideology, even when advancing women’s rights, has been rooted in the racialization of the Other, i.e. the Muslim (often immigrant) Other in this case. In the context of the Rassemblement National, Le Pen has engaged in a strenuous defense of Muslim women’s rights against the alleged threat posed by Islam to gender equality. Immigration is seen as being out-of-control and massive. Islam is described as a totalitarian ideology, menacing French values, such as secularism, freedom of expression, and equality between men and women.

Femonationalism is the ideological centerpiece of Le Pen’s campaigns against the veil and the burkini, perceived by the PRR leader as a means of Islamist propaganda, as well as the marker of a totalitarian ideology forcing Muslim women into submission to strict norms determined by Muslim men. In such a way, nativism and gender fights become inextricably entangled. Le Pen’s fight for the alleged rights claimed by herself, her party, and the PRR, for Muslim women are weaponized in the fight against immigrants, particularly those from Muslim countries, on the basis of an ethnocultural nationalist credo that portrays the “Other” and their identity as a threat to the national identity of the in-group, understood as the Western civilisation.

So, rights for whom?
Marine Le Pen has proved that, despite addressing the crowds by identifying herself as a feminist (though half-heartedly) and a free woman, she advocates for a precise type of equality and gender rights, which is predicated around the nativist boundaries between the in-group to protect, and the out-group to scapegoat. The women Le Pen claims to defend are instrumentalized for the purpose of scapegoating the Muslim immigrant. Indeed, the women Le Pen claims to protect either belong to the French in-group or they belong to the out-group of women to paternalistically protect against the threatening Muslim Other. Le Pen’s epochal results for her Rassemblement National as a female leader and her plea to protect and defend women’s rights strongly clash with her questionable stances that envisage limitations and delegitimization of Muslim women’s agency. In a nutshell, explicitly advancing women’s rights does not translate into the promotion of (all) rights for all women.

Laura Montecchio – King’s College London

Marianna Griffini – King’s College London

Source: Alice News