On April 21, 1944, French women were granted the right to vote after fighting for suffrage since the French Revolution. This Sunday is the beginning of an election that might take France the closest to fascism that it’s been since 1944, and much has been made of the fact that the one who could usher in this change is a woman: Front National candidate Marion Anne Perrine Le Pen, AKA Marine—the same name of a shade of blue found in the French flag.
Marine Le Pen’s candidacy does seem historic on its face. If elected, she would be the country’s first woman president and the second woman in modern times to wield executive power after Prime Minister Edith Cresson, who held the office for a mere ten months in 1991 and ‘92. Le Pen will almost definitely become the second woman to make it to the runoff of a presidential election after Ségolène Royal in 2007.
Le Pen took the same road to power as other prominent female politicians in male-chauvinist countries, like Indira Gandhi and Simiravo Bandaranaike: nepotism. (Apropos of nothing, both Gandhi and Bandaranaike were authoritarians who curtailed civil liberties and cracked down on ethnic or religious minorities.) Unlike most women entering politics, Le Pen didn’t have to work twice as hard to be seen as half as legitimate because her last name meant she deserved to be there.
In other words, just because Le Pen is a woman with power in a society where machismo reigns supreme doesn’t mean she’s winning victories for women. If her success is representative of anything, it’s the gains of a superficial kind of women’s empowerment through entrepreneurship and other individual success stories. Even Madame Figaro, the glossy ladies’ auxiliary of the bourgeois conservative paper Le Figaro, has hopped on the Lean In trend, running profiles of successful businesswomen. But the glass ceiling isn’t the most pressing concern for most French women. They face job precarity, unemployment, and a devastating lack of social mobility, and as women they also have to walk an impossible tightrope of feminine behavior that manifests even in the idealized French girl dress code—the stylish uniform that’s attractive, but not sexy; primped, but not “vulgar”; and never, ever too loud. Women who are not feminine enough are treated like they don’t exist—or they’re outright seen as disgusting—but those who are too feminine are reduced to their appearance, like MP Cécile Duflot who was catcalled in Parliament while wearing a dress. Those who are too gentle are unserious (i.e. Ségolène Royal), but let them become a little opinionated and they’re “aggressive” (novelist Christine Angot, who read conservative politician François Fillon for filth on live TV only for the exchange to be described as her losing her temper).
Feminism isn’t posited as the solution to this situation outside of activist circles. Ironically, in the country that produced some of feminism’s most important theorists—from Olympe de Gouges to Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Christine Delphy—feminism is still a bit taboo, viewed by many as an American import. And even Kristeva herself sees American-style identity politics as a form of “totalitarianism” of the collective over the individual.
All this is to say that being a woman cannot possibly have helped Marine Le Pen. And in fact, she hasn’t tried to make her gender work for her. It’s almost the exact opposite: She has managed to keep her gender from being a liability.
Le Pen’s deep voice allows her to downplay her femininity, as do her vocal inflections that sound like everyone’s narrow-minded, small-town, red-wine-drinking great-uncle who’s loud and wrong at the family reunion... or like her father. (These inflections also seem affected—I doubt she spoke the same way as a lawyer arguing before the High Court of Paris.) She’s also kept her partner and children out of the public eye, which has given the public fewer opportunities to see her as a wife or a mother and thereby a potential sex object or caregiver. And of course, her harsh politics are an infallible shield against accusations of feminine softness.
Her persona aside, the “Marine 2017” campaign team is almost all male (out of 34 members, only four are women and one is her niece). Would a male candidate with a similar team be criticized as sexist, and does Le Pen’s womanhood give her a free pass? I doubt it, though I’m sure everyone would have a lot to say about a woman candidate with 30 women on her 34-person team. But even the elder Le Pen, Jean-Marie, who was condemned countless times in court for hate speech and chastised by public opinion even more often, has not caught any major criticism for his sexism. (He was convicted of assaulting a woman politician in 1997, but his ascension in politics continued apace until 2015, when his daughter ousted him from the Front National.) Jean-Marie’s misogyny was well within the accepted spectrum of ideas. Now that Marine has walked back the party’s anti-choice position (and its plan to incentivize French women to stay at home and increase the native-born birth rate), she’s definitely unassailable.
As for Le Pen’s policies, since she embraces the traditional welfare state, her policies will incidentally help women... unless they are immigrant women trying to get housing, a job, or healthcare under a regime that would legally mandate prioritizing French citizens. Or French Guyanese women fighting for reparations for the mainland’s neo-colonial destruction of the Guyanese economy (good luck with that because Marine loves colonialism). Or Muslim women, who will be even more scrutinized by the surveillance state even as they’re targeted by violent racists—can anyone imagine Marine Le Pen denouncing a hate crime against a hijabi woman?
Le Pen also plans to implement a zero-tolerance criminal justice policy that will hit working-class women and women of color hard, whether they further swell the ranks of the disproportionately poor and brown prison population or see their families torn apart by incarceration. Marine Le Pen’s project for France isn’t for women like me, a dual citizen of France and a non-European country. Under her presidency, my dual citizenship could not stand: I would have to give up my American citizenship and apply for a green card in the country where I was born, or give up my French citizenship and apply for a visa to visit my friends and family.
But in a country where feminism is a dirty word, why would a woman candidate even want to run on a feminist platform? Le Pen only ever uses her status as a woman to discuss the one topic that seems to bring French men to care about women’s rights: the debate on whether Muslims should be allowed to exist in France. She’s not alone in selectively playing the woman card. The only time Minister of Women’s Rights Laurence Rossignol is ever invited on TV is to denounce the burqini and to dismiss Muslim women who willingly wear headscarves by comparing those women to “Negroes [sic] who accepted slavery.” And if I had a euro for every time a French man denigrated Islam in the name of women’s rights in one breath and was nauseatingly sexist in the next, I wouldn’t need the welfare state.
So what’s a Frenchwoman to do? When I look at the stakes, not voting seems irresponsible. But I also know that if Marine loses, the political establishment will congratulate itself for putting up a “republican front” against an unacceptable candidate even as they recuperate her ideas. Voting seems like just another of the shitty choices of womanhood: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Emily Lever is a French-American writer. She has had enough of the Le Pen family since the age of nine.