French voters will go to the polls on Sunday, and the race could be a tight one.
After numerous controversies and heated debates, two frontrunners have emerged, the far-right Marine Le Pen and centrist ex-investment banker Emmanuel Macron. Regardless of which way the vote goes, however, the result could be historic if the winner is Le Pen, who would be France’s first female president. But making history is more complicated than just checking a box.
Le Pen, head of the National Front party (FN), has been front and center in coverage of the election, both national and international. If she wins, she would be concluding nothing short of a miraculous rise — a once-fringe candidate catapulted to the nation’s most powerful spot after a long career in politics, achieving what no other French female politician has managed.
Western media has enjoyed drawing comparisons between Le Pen and U.S. President Donald Trump, and while the two figures are very different, both have benefited from a resurgence in nationalist politics across the Western world. Le Pen’s rise rests strongly on her opposition to France’s membership in the European Union, her hardline stance on immigration, and her support for bolstering the working class — issues that might sound familiar in light of Trump’s election. Unlike Trump, however, Le Pen is relying on a specific demographic to carry her over the finish line that Trump did not: women.
The prospect of a Le Pen win has been met with mixed responses from feminists. French women could neither vote nor hold office until 1944, and none has ever held the nation’s highest office. Making up more than half of the French electorate, they remain more likely to register to vote but far less likely to turn out.
Le Pen seems to be changing that.
Under the leadership of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, FN was a party many women avoided, in no small part because of its emphasis on traditional female roles and celebration of masculinity. But the party’s current head is another story. She has heavily targeted female voters, publishing pamphlets emphasizing her status as a twice-divorced mother of three, and she has carefully worked to paint her hard stance on immigration as a women’s issue.
“In France we respect women, we don’t beat them, we don’t ask them to hide themselves behind a veil as if they were impure,” she said at a recent campaign rally. “We drink wine when we want, we can criticize religion and speak freely.”
Her comments were a clear jab at Muslims, who currently make up about 7.5 percent of the French population, a number that is rising rapidly. A rise in violent attacks claimed by organizations like ISIS have created a perception of Muslim immigrants as at odds with French society — something Le Pen has exploited. Following a tragic shooting on Thursday resulting in the death of a police officer as well as his assailant, Le Pen called for deporting all foreigners on the country’s terror watch list.
But Le Pen is far from a progressive hero for women’s rights, and it’s hard to argue her win would be a victory for feminism. Disdain for immigrants, Muslims, and minorities more generally has been a hallmark of Le Pen’s brand of far-right politics. Were she to become president, her election would arguably have repercussions for many people, including French women, a considerable number of whom are Muslims, immigrants, or occupy other identities on the margins.
Much of Le Pen’s career has been spent distancing FN from the legacy of her father, who she removed from leadership in 2015 after inflammatory anti-Semitic remarks. In the time since, the younger Le Pen has worked to shift FN’s hawkish far-right image towards something more populist and appealing to voters. She has eased harsh stances on abortion rights and same-sex marriage (though FN remains opposed to the latter), and tried to combat allegations of anti-Semitism. If her efforts haven’t fully succeeded, they’ve still certainly eroded many of the stereotypes dogging her party, and Sunday could see the FN victorious.
Still, the cracks are showing. Following allegations that refugees from North Africa in Cologne, Germany had carried out mass-sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in 2016, Le Pen wrote an op-ed calling for a referendum on France’s migration policies, arguing that women’s rights were being compromised. Her efforts to posit opposition to immigration as a feminist issue went over poorly in many circles, with a number of prominent women’s rights activists pushing back.
“The fact that she uses the right of women for racist purposes, and xenophobic, to express herself on migrants, we find that intolerable,” Marie Allibert, spokeswoman for French feminist group Osez le Feminisme, told Politico at the time.
The incident was hardly the first time Le Pen has worked to pit minorities against one another. Dividing French Muslims and Jews has been crucial to her current success, as Ethan B. Katz recently wrote for The Atlantic. Her party’s history with anti-Semitism is well known, and Le Pen herself stepped into hot water when she recently attempted to absolve France of accountability in an infamous 1942 roundup of more than 13,000 Jews by French policemen (they were later deported to Auschwitz.)
A 50-year-old dental assistant identified only as Cathy told NBC News that the incident had surprised her, and potentially turned her off voting for Le Pen. “Perhaps she has the same ideas as her father but they’re just hidden behind good PR skills. So I’m still thinking,” she said.
Still, Le Pen has spent the campaign cycle making overtures to France’s Jewish community, and playing up French fears of Islam and Muslim immigration more generally. Islamophobia has been a driving factor in Le Pen’s female support.
“Marine Le Pen warned years ago that Islamism is segregating men and women in the Paris suburbs,” Manon Bouquin, a student, told NPR. The publication also cited political scientist Jean-Yves Camus, who observed that Le Pen has relied on anti-Islamic talking points as a means of attracting female voters. “And she tells the same thing to gay people and to the Jews,” he said.
Not everyone is falling for it. “It’d be good if we were to elect a woman but not this one,” Florence Charlet, a hairdresser, told Bloomberg.
Others noted that of Le Pen’s 144 manifesto pledges, only one touches on women’s rights — it involves fighting against Islam. Abolishing surrogacy and same-sex marriage while encouraging procreation are also included among the candidate’s promises.
Whether or not women will show up for Le Pen at the polls depends on a number of factors. Her flip-flopping on issues like abortion have many suspicious, as does FN’s lingering legacy of racism and discrimination. If current polls are any indicator, Sunday’s election will be a duel between Le Pen and Macron.
But the candidates could well be looking at a run-off, and that’s without factoring in the scandal-plagued center-right François Fillon and far-left come-from-behind candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, both of whom are still contenders. And if women show up for Le Pen, the odds could be in her favor.