PARIS: A divorced mother-of-three, French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has played up her gender to soften her image and grow her vote beyond her party’s traditional white male base.
In her campaign video Le Pen, who faces centrist Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the election on Sunday, introduces herself as “a woman” and “a mother” before adding that she was a lawyer before going into politics.
She is shown leafing through a family album containing photographs of her and her two sisters.
Airbrushed out of the picture is her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a convicted anti-Semite who passed the reins of the anti-immigration National Front (FN) to his daughter in 2011 but was booted out of the party four years later for downplaying the Holocaust.
But the accompanying message on Islam is still uncompromising, with Le Pen warning darkly of “the restriction of freedoms that have multiplied in our country through the rise of Islamic fundamentalism”.
In the six years since Le Pen took over the leadership of the FN — a position from which she took leave to campaign in the run-off — the party’s share of the female vote has grown exponentially.
An Ipsos poll conducted before the first round of the election showed 20% of women backing her, nearly on a par with her share of the male vote, which stood at 24%.
Le Pen placed second in the opening round with 7.7 million votes, taking a step closer to becoming France’s first “presidente”.
Analysts have linked her success to her inroads among female voters, who represent 52% of the electorate.
When Le Pen senior, a former paratrooper, was in charge the FN attracted mainly young masculine types “in search of a virile leader”, according to political scientist Virginie Martin.
Le Pen, who gave a tell-all interview about her childhood to French M6 television in October, has attempted to give the party a new face.
“I want to defend French women,” she said in a four-page pamphlet designed to look like a fashion magazine, four million copies of which were printed in February.
The pamphlet featured a smiling Le Pen on the cover, with headlines describing her as “A woman with heart” and a female politician “In A Man’s World”.
“Marine Le Pen’s leadership smashed the taboo of the FN vote among women,” Martin said.
But for feminist groups like the Osez Le Feminisme (Dare Feminism) collective, the FN remains an “anti-republic, anti-feminist” party.
“No, Marine Le Pen is not the candidate of women,” Osez Le Feminisme said in a statement.
In Le Pen’s list of 144 campaign promises “defending women’s rights” comes near the top, at number 9.
In it she lists radical Islam as the first threat to women’s rights in France, ahead of gender pay inequality.
Rebecca Amsellem, founder of the feminist newsletter Les Glorieuses accused Le Pen of subverting women’s rights to send a “xenophobic message”.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. Marine Le Pen is no women’s rights activist,” Amsellem said, pointing to Le Pen’s voting record at the European Parliament.
Le Pen has only backed three out of 59 EU bills on women’s rights since becoming a member of the parliament in 2004, France 2 public broadcaster reported. She was absent for 32 votes, abstained for 7 and voted against on 17 occasions.
But she has broken with the traditionalist Catholic line of the FN’s old guard by opposing calls to reduce reimbursements for abortions and steering clear of demonstrations against a 2013 gay marriage bill.
Polls currently show Le Pen lagging Macron by over 20 points in Sunday’s runoff.
If she were badly beaten, “the hardliners will make a comeback”, Martin predicted.