Marine Le Pen: A Next-Wave Authoritarian Selling Hate With a Feminine Touch
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The democratic world is expressing relief in the aftermath of Emmanuel Macron's victory over Marine Le Pen, head of France's National Rally party. Macron earned a decisive victory, 58.5% to Le Pen's 41%. The outcome of the June legislative elections (sometimes known as the "third round" of voting) will determine whether Macron obtains the parliamentary majority necessary to govern effectively. Yet France will have a centrist head of state who, unlike Le Pen, is not linked ideologically or financially to Russian President Vladimir Putin, making this win doubly important.
As someone who writes on threats to democracy, I have been following 2022's elections closely. The French election held special interest for me, though, as a historian of strongmen --a term I use for rulers who celebrate male power and find fortune when patriarchal authority is seen as under threat, as in Italy in the 1920s, Germany and Spain in the 1930s, Russia and Italy in the 1990s, and America in 2016.
Had Le Pen won, we would have had the makings of the first female-led far-right government in Europe. In the conclusion to my 2020 book on the subject, I singled Le Pen out in suggesting that such a shift is inevitable. "That male model of authoritarian power...may give way in the future as female-led authoritarian states emerge. Women are prominent within the European far right, starting with Marine Le Pen, head of France’s National Rally party. Yet a female-led rightist state would pose no threat to authoritarianism’s appeal as a legitimating force of misogyny, kleptocracy, and, in many countries, White racial domination."
Le Pen has succeeded in a world of politicians known for their masculine bluster (think Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, et al), although she is in some ways a special case. She is part of a political dynasty that has its roots in the pro-Fascist, openly antisemitic National Front party created by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who in 2015 called Nazi crematoria "a detail of history."
Le Pen's contribution, especially in the last years, has been to mainstream her far-right party, including by expelling her old-school extremist father and using her first name only in many public events to minimize her association with him.
For some voters, her "softer" feminine image likely goes a long way in making her seem acceptable. Her tasteful and understated clothing blunts the brute force of her racist proposals, such as her idea of eliminating birthright citizenship to more easily target French Muslims for discrimination. "I'd be very pleased to have a female president," said former Miss France Delphine Wespiser just before the election, in this spirit. "I'd like a mother of the French who brings us together, who protects [us], all with a female sensibility."
In fact, as the global right doubles down on its attention to families --claiming it is a priority to protect children and schools from pedophilic homosexuals, satanist Soros puppets, childless left-wing radicals, and more--being a mother, who can mobilize other mothers, will become an advantage in politics.
That's certainly held true for Katalin Novák, Hungary's new president. She is a mother of three and Orban's former minister for family affairs --both excellent qualifications when politicizing families is at the center of illiberal agendas. "As a mother, I find it crucial to secure children's physical, emotional & mental safety," Novák tweeted on March 25, urging Hungarians to participate in a "child protection referendum" that would reinforce the 2021 ban on any discussion of LGBTQ identities and sexual orientations in schools, television, and advertising.
While Le Pen lost, she improved her voter share with respect to the 34% she obtained against Macron in 2017. In the coming years, shifts in far-right tactics intended to normalize extremism and the aging of the current strongman cohort will likely produce a new wave of illiberal female leaders.
While these authoritarians won't pose bare-chested, in the tradition of Benito Mussolini and Putin, they will be just as racist, corrupt, and violent as like-minded male leaders, and just as dedicated to using disinformation to create the alternate reality they need to stay in power.