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The gender card in far-right political discourse: Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen in France, a case study

Alduy

Jul 28 2022

In France, far-right political parties like the National Front have long championed traditional gender roles. The ideal man is the breadwinner and head of his household; the archetypal woman is pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen. By framing women as mothers and housewives, the National Front has long alienated women voters, who tend to support more progressive platforms. What happens, asks Cécile Alduy, a Clayman Institute faculty research fellow and professor of French literature and culture, when the head of the National Front is also a woman?

Alduy’s research focuses on the role of gender in far-right political discourse through the case study of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front who recently served as its candidate in the 2022 French presidential elections. Though she is the face of a far-right party known for its disdain for women’s rights issues, Le Pen herself claims to be pro-choice and a quasi-feminist. By comparing Le Pen’s political platform with that of her far-right opponent, 2022 presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, Alduy analyzes the impact of gender identity on right-wing voter behavior. 

The misogyny of the contemporary French far-right movement traces its origins to Jean-Marie Le Pen (JMLP), founder of the National Front party in 1972. Anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and pro-natalist, the party was deeply concerned with the declining birth rates of “native” white citizens. JMLP controversially referred to national abortion laws as “anti-French genocide” and scoffed at the notion of women’s reproductive rights. “The idea that your body belongs to you is completely laughable,” he stated in a 1996 interview. “It belongs to life and also, in part, to the nation.” To JMLP and the National Front, women were first and foremost bearers of children—the biological and cultural reproducers of the national community. 

For decades, women voters were repulsed by the National Front’s anti-feminist messaging. But that changed with the rise of JMLP’s daughter, Marine Le Pen (MLP).

For decades, women voters were repulsed by the National Front’s anti-feminist messaging. But that changed with the rise of JMLP’s daughter, Marine Le Pen (MLP). Through a comparison to Joan of Arc, the medieval heroine who fought for France during the Hundred Years’ War, MLP presents herself as a defender of women’s rights. As a single mother of three, she claims to represent the interests of working moms. “She has adapted to the trends in public opinion, abandoning lost causes such as anti-abortion platforms,” says Alduy. 

Her defense of French women, however, depends on racist, xenophobic, and anti-Muslim depictions of immigrant communities. For example, in a 2016 op-ed on sexual assault and violence against women, MLP criminalized Middle Eastern and North African migrants, writing, “I fear that this Syrian refugee crisis is the beginning of the end of women’s rights.” Rather than challenging patriarchy or gender inequality outright, she simply racializes the problem of sexism. 

Through cheerful, pseudo-feminist features in French newspapers and magazines, MLP draws on her womanhood to soften the National Front’s image, while maintaining the core of its white, ethnocentrist ideology. “By adopting the language of the left without espousing any of their calls for true gender equality, she has managed to rebrand the National Front as woman-friendly,” Alduy explains.

The emergence of radical far-right pundit and provocateur Éric Zemmour has further normalized MLP’s conservative politics. Zemmour rose to fame in 2006 with the publication of Le Premier Sexe (The First Sex), an anti-feminist manifesto in defense of patriarchy.

The emergence of radical far-right pundit and provocateur Éric Zemmour has further normalized MLP’s conservative politics. Zemmour rose to fame in 2006 with the publication of Le Premier Sexe (The First Sex), an anti-feminist manifesto in defense of patriarchy. In a rebuttal of Simone de Beauvoir’s iconic feminist text The Second Sex, Zemmour argues that men are natural sexual predators, born to dominate human society. “Feminine values are incompatible with power,” he writes. Like JMLP, Zemmour is also an ardent nativist. A believer in the “Great Replacement”—a widely discredited far-right theory that claims that white European populations are being systematically “replaced” by non-white Muslim migrants—Zemmour advocates the use of women’s reproductive capacities to produce new generations of white French citizens. In late 2021, Zemmour formally entered the political arena by founding Reconquête (in English, “Reconquest”), a far-right political party. 

In her analysis of the role of gender in far-right voting patterns, Alduy focuses on the first round of the 2022 French presidential elections. The runoff featured both MLP as the National Front candidate, and Zemmour, the candidate for Reconquête. As a frontrunner in the race, MLP finished in second, winning 23.6 percent of the vote and moving on to the second round of the elections, where she ultimately lost to incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron. By contrast, Zemmour took fourth place, receiving 7 percent of the runoff vote. 

Despite Zemmour’s comparatively weak showing in the first round, Alduy’s research suggests that his candidacy had a noticeable impact on the gender gap among far-right voters. Whereas near equal percentages of male and female voters cast their ballots for MLP (23 and 24 percent, respectively), the percentage of male voters for Zemmour was nearly double that of his female voters (9 percent versus 5 percent, respectively). 

According to Alduy, this discrepancy comes down to gender. MLP and Zemmour’s political platforms are nearly identical. Both challenge the concept of “gender,” embrace nativist, pro-natalist policies, oppose same-sex marriage, and support limits on the access to abortion and assisted reproductive technologies. Yet male and female voters clearly perceive MLP and Zemmour differently on gender issues. Alduy hypothesizes that the gender gap stems from men’s disproportionate vote (or “over-vote”) for Zemmour’s masculinist agenda, which purports to defend white men against the twin assaults of feminism and racial integration. 

In future research, Alduy hopes to conduct a more granular analysis of far-right party platforms. How do the variables of “sex” and “gender” play out differently across socioeconomic categories? How does anti-immigrant sentiment cross-cut political coalitions? 

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.