By Claire Zillman
April 24, 2017

French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, along with centrist Emmanuel Macron, came out on top in the first round of voting in the French presidential elections on Sunday, with 21.4% and 23.9% of the vote, respectively. They now advance to the final runoff scheduled for May 7.

Le Pen’s transition from fringe right-wing candidate to a leading presidential hopeful has been bolstered in part by her recent effort to appeal to female voters. Le Pen’s strong performance yesterday, and her supporters’ eagerness to cast her as a feminist in the style of Hillary Clinton—they used Clinton’s slogan #ImWithHer as an online rallying cry—suggest her efforts have worked.

But Le Pen’s success is not necessarily a boon for women’s rights. Despite her entreaties to French women, she still avoids describing herself as a “feminist,” and has been called a “pretend feminist” by the French feminist group Osez le Feminisme, which told Politico that “she uses the right of women for racist purposes, and [for] xenophobic [reasons], to express herself on migrants.”

Le Pen has tried to appeal to women in various ways, by softening her approach to issues like abortion, invoking French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, distributing campaign leaflets championing her as “a female politician in a man’s world,” and underscoring her identity as a twice-divorced mother of three. Since Le Pen took over for her father as leader of the National Front in 2011, the party has increased its standing among women. The percentage of women voting for the party nearly tripled between 2010 and 2015, rising to 28% in large part due to support from working-class women.

If elected, Le Pen has promised to permanently close French borders, to reinstitute the franc as the national currency, to shutter all mosques, to ban religious head coverings, to slash immigration, and to pull France out of NATO’s command structure. Only one element of her 144-point campaign platform mentions women’s rights, as BuzzFeed’s Jina Moore points out: Le Pen promises to “defend women’s rights against Islamism, which would take back women’s fundamental freedoms.”

“This is the election when Marine Le Pen figured out it’s good to be a woman,” writes Moore. Macron is expected to defeat Le Pen handily come May 7, but if she performs better than expected, it may very well be due to a surge from her female base.

@lindakinstler

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