Le Pen, remarkably, has managed to sidestep the fate of her predecessors, and even wield her gender as an asset. “If anything [her gender] has provided a slight benefit,” Rainbow Murray, an associate professor focusing on gender politics, representation, and political institutions at Queen Mary University of London, told me. “She’s actively set out to detoxify the party brand and I think her gender has helped.”
Le Pen has done this by attempting to soften the FN’s extremist edges and embrace her role as a woman, while keeping the party focused squarely on immigration and security. Her illiberal rhetoric about Islam and the Holocaust are still likely to curb the support of some voters who aren’t entirely convinced the FN has shed the racist and xenophobic image that has defined it for years. Still, while Le Pen may have no viable path to victory this year, her overhaul of the FN guarantees it has a chance of competing going forward for perhaps the first time in its 50-year history.
Much of Le Pen’s success during this presidential election stems from her project to modernize the FN, the historically fringe party founded in 1972 by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen to promote far-right policies such as opposing the European Union, globalization, and immigration. After taking over leadership of the FN in 2011, the younger Le Pen shed some of its more anti-Semitic (her father once called the Holocaust a minor “detail” of history) and homophobic (he also likened homosexuality to pedophilia) elements—an effort which culminated in her father’s public expulsion from the party in 2015.
Her efforts didn’t go unnoticed. Though the party has tended to rely on an older, predominantly male voter base—attracting nearly twice as many male votes for every female vote—Le Pen’s “de-demonization” of the party helped narrow the gender gap among its supporters. This was most evident during her first presidential bid in 2012 when she won a record 17.9 percent of the vote (approximately 6.4 million votes), of which the number of male and female voters was nearly equal.
If the FN’s loyal base is any indication, the gender gap is projected to remain narrow. A recent study by French pollster Ifop found that women make up 48 percent of voters who have voted for the FN previously, with men making up 52 percent.
Gilles Ivaldi, a political-science researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Nice, told me Le Pen’s ability to draw the support of these female voters again will be tested in 2017. “It was a big change,” Ivaldi said of the 2012 outcome. “Current polls suggest she could win 24 or 25 percent altogether in the first round, and out of these you’d have 26 percent among men and 22 percent among women, so the gap is slightly bigger.”
Another way Le Pen has drawn more women to FN: by promoting herself as a modern woman of the people. In a recent campaign ad, she discussed being a woman, a mother, and a lawyer—aspects of her identity that she says makes her “proudly, loyally, and resolutely French.” It’s a populist, anti-elitist characterization that has helped her attract new voters to the party, including former Socialist voters who are disillusioned by the deeply unpopular presidency of François Hollande. “She’s twice divorced, she is effectively a single mother, she has a partner of several years who she isn't married to,” Murray said. “She can put herself forward as someone who understands the dilemmas faced by other women in that situation.”