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How France's far-right National Rally finally hooked the women's vote

It came as little surprise when Marine Le Pen's National Rally (RN) won the 9 June European parliamentary elections in France, but the number of women backing the anti-immigration party up 10 percent since 2019 is a turnabout .

By Alison Hird - RFI

June 17, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

It came as little surprise when Marine Le Pen's National Rally (RN) won the 9 June European parliamentary elections in France, but the number of women backing the anti-immigration party – up 10 percent since 2019 – is a turnabout. Have women found a voice in the RN or are they, as some feminists suggest, being duped?

Almost as many women as men voted for RN candidate Jordan Bardella in the European polls – 30 percent compared to 32 percent, according to a recent Ipsos survey.

“It's unprecedented,” says Erwan Lecœur, a sociologist specialising in the far right, adding that it marks the end of the “radical right gender gap”.

For decades women were less inclined to vote for the far right and one explanation was socio-economic. More likely to be dependent on welfare, women tended to favour leftist parties that traditionally defended a generous benefit system along with women's rights.

In 2002 when the xenophobic, anti-Semitic leader of the then National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it through to the presidential runoff, he secured only 11 percent of the women's vote, compared to 26 percent of men.

“In the days of the National Front, there was always a gap of 5 to 6 percent between men and women,” Lecoeur told RFI's Aurore Lartigue. “Since 2017, that has changed."

Feminisation of the party

The change began slowly but surely when Marine Le Pen took over the party in 2011 and started rebranding its image. She ditched some of the old men for younger ones, denounced anti-Semitism and had an openly gay deputy at her side.

She also rebranded herself as a modern emancipated woman and a divorced working mum who loved animals. In 2018, she sealed the breakaway from her father's toxic legacy by renaming the party the National Rally.

Lecoeur says this change in party image along with the arrival of the photogenic, social-media savvy 28-year-old Jordan Bardella as her successor, has helped bring more women voters on board.

But the main reason is Le Pen's programme.As a presidential candidate in 2022, Le Pen published a "Letter to French Women” in Le Figaro daily in which she affirmed her "sensitivity to the feminist cause".

The party manifesto promised to double support for single mothers raising children, while strengthening controls to prevent fraud, and measures to make domestic violence a priority.

“Her policy evolved strongly towards taking women's problems into account and notably those of single women and their concerns over security issues and feminism,” Lecoeur explains.

While the feminism was "slightly old-fashioned” it did the trick. His research in 2023-2024 showed Le Pen's massive appeal among 30-to 40-year-old women who'd tended to abstain.

“They adored her; she embodied a strong woman who wouldn't be pushed around by men.”

Women's rights as a political ploy

"We have always protected women's rights," outgoing RN lawmaker Hélène Laporte told RFI. "As a woman I couldn't have joined a party that didn't respect them.”

She points to the fact RN voted in favour of enshrining abortion rights in the constitution in March this year. Of its 88 MPs 46 voted in favour, 11 against, 20 abstained and 11 were absent.

But some feminist groups question the RN's credentials on women's rights.

In an open letter published in Liberation daily last month, a feminist collective described the RN as the “enemy of women” accusing it of using women's rights to advance its own political agenda.

It highlighted the fact that in April this year RN MEPs abstained on introducing the right to abortion in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, while in November 2020 and 2021 they also opposed a resolution condemning Poland for its almost total ban on abortion.

Last year, some 35 RN MPs voted against a bill to increase women's access to positions of responsibility in the civil service, and in 2018, when France's parliament adopted a law strengthening the fight against sexual and gender-based violence, most RN lawmakers, including Le Pen, were absent.

Women's rights a security issue

The anti-immigration National Rally's concern for women's issues is tied to its opposition to Islam. It's no coincidence that the issue of violence against women appeared in the security section of the party's 2022 manifesto.

"No one can tell us that the RN is against women's rights. The reason we're fighting Islamism, for example, is to protect women's freedom," RN lawmaker Laporte told RFI.

In the 2022 "Letter to French Women" Le Pen said that in addition to tougher punishments for sex offenders, she would register street stalkers on the sex offenders' register and push to deport foreigners who engaged in such practices.

"There is a kind of 'racialisation' of sexist and sexual violence within the RN," says Domitille de Goys of #NousToutes. “They manipulate the figures and explain they're going to protect women from sexist and sexual violence by targeting migrants, who are allegedly responsible for it.

“And yet studies show that 91 percent of victims knew their attacker.”

Whether the rhetoric is founded or not, it has struck a chord with some female voters.

"The basic reason the RN is attracting more women is that women see the RN as a party that will protect them against Islamists and Islam,” says Lecoeur.

"They associate the RN with the return of moral order and opposition to “all those who question secularism."

'Pointing a gun against yourself'

Surveys show immigration is RN voters' primary concern, but worries over a drop in purchasing power are not far behind.

“Like many people in society, women feel that they are no longer being listened to, and have the impression that in the RN they will find people who can change France," de Goys told RFI. 

But while the RN likes to champion the working poor, “no precise measure has yet been envisaged apart from the re-evaluation of health workers' salaries”, wrote philosopher Camille Froidevaux-Metterie.  

Women continue to suffer from a gender pay divide and are more likely to suffer from poverty, yet all the far-right MEPs abstained from voting the 2022 EU resolution on an adequate minimum wage in Europe.

Given RN's flaky record on women's rights, voting for the party in the 30 June and 7 July parliamentary elections would be like “pointing a gun against yourself”, concluded Froidevaux-Metterie.

Meanwhile Nonna Mayer, a specialist on the far right, says the die is not cast.

RN has undoubtedly extended its electorate but “the more socially diversified it is, the more difficult it is to hide the contradictions in its economic programme, to attract both blue- and white-collar workers, the self-employed and employees”, she wrote in Le Monde.

“Even the working-class female electorate won over by Le Pen could drop in the post #metoo context – where young women are positioning themselves more to the left than men of the same age.”


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