Le Pen Wins Over Women Voters Who Feel Left Behind in France

  • Anti-EU candidate attracted 2 million women voters since 2012
  • Nationalist vows to defend France’s freedom against Islamists

CFR's Haass Sees Le Pen Building Momentum in France

French women are starting to picture their next president as a divorced mother of three.

The anti-euro, anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen has been playing up her gender as she seeks to convert a likely first-round victory into an overall majority in the run-off on May 7 -- and it’s paying off. The 48-year-old National Front leader has already rallied some 2 million additional female voters to her cause since her last run for president in 2012 and she’s betting more will follow.

“Women are the key,” said Nonna Mayer, a researcher at the Sciences Po institute in Paris who has studied the National Front for 25 years. “These women often abstain and now they are backing Le Pen to protect their jobs and their security.”

While women make up just over half of the electorate in France they are far less likely to turn out than men, offering a well of untapped support for the candidate who manages to tune into their concerns. Le Pen’s pitch weaves together concerns about immigration, security, and the economic decline of many white French communities into a potent populist brew that borrows freely from U.S. President Donald Trump, blaming “the elite” for the problems of ordinary voters.

In 2012 Le Pen lagged behind with female voters, winning 17 percent compared with 20 percent of men’s ballots. Now she’s closed that gender gap, attracting 26 percent of voters of both sexes, according of pollster Ifop. That makes her the favored candidate among women for the first round.

“What she is proposing is really different, just like Trump offered something really new,” said Cindy Blain, a 27-year-old pharmacist in the rural north east of France. “Maybe if we see Trump succeed, then voters will give her a chance.”

Glossy Brochure

The prospect of a populist president committed to taking France out of the single currency pushed the spread between French 10-year bonds and similar-maturity German bunds to its widest in more than four years on Wednesday. The risk premium dropped 3 basis points to 76 basis points at 5:24 p.m. Paris time after earlier reaching 84 basis points.

Asked if she was concerned about the risks involved in Le Pen’s plan to leave the euro, Blain brushed the question off with a flick of her hand, as if swatting away a fly.

For a dashboard on European political risk, click here

Le Pen’s bid for women’s votes is clear: on Feb. 4 she began distributing 4 million copies of a glossy, magazine-style brochure that set out her plan to “defend French women” as the country’s first female president. The pamphlet was interspersed with pictures of her navigating “the world of men” as a sister, mother, lawyer, sailor and political leader and included a promise to be a shield against Islamic fundamentalists who, she said, want to stop women “wearing a skirt, going to work or to the bistro.”

“This is not a feminist vote,” Mayer said.

Le Pen sent another signal to the voters Tuesday on a visit to Beirut, when she refused to wear a head scarf to meet with a senior Muslim official, who insisted she don one. With neither side backing down, she left without seeing him.

Working-Class Concerns

The National Front voted against a proposal to secure equal rights for women in the European parliament in March, but Le Pen again vowed to protect French women after the mass sexual assault by groups of men in Cologne, Germany, just over a year ago in an op-ed that tied together immigration and women rights.

“Le Pen isn’t asking for equality, she’s promising justice and security,” said Nicolas Lebourg, a researcher on French far-right politics at the University of Montpellier. “And that often resonates more with women facing the challenges of everyday life.”

As well as the surge of support from women, surveys show she’s gained support among less-educated voters, rural communities and those in lower-paid jobs. She’s doubled her poll scores among retirees, though she still lags Republican candidate Francois Fillon.

‘Quite Scary’

Still, not all women are persuaded by Le Pen’s claims to represent the sisterhood.

“It’d be good if we were to elect a woman but not this one,” said Florence Charlet, a 44-year-old hairdresser from Le Pen’s northern heartlands of the Pas-de-Calais region. “She’s actually quite scary for a woman. She’s not soft-spoken, she’s quite virile.”

Le Pen’s first round polling projections equate to about 10 million votes in the first round and it typically takes about 18 million to win the run-off.

That may be a stretch, according to Bruno Cavalier, chief economist at Oddo Securities in Paris, but she does have a chance if she faces the Republican Francois Fillon or Benoit Hamon of the Socialists in the run-off. In that scenario, turnout may be depressed and Le Pen could win with as few as 14 million votes, Cavalier said in a research note Monday, though he gave her just an 11 percent chance of victory.

Read more: the constitutional barriers to a French euro exit

Bookmakers rate her chances much higher at 34 percent and the pollster Elabe on Tuesday showed Le Pen exceeding 40 percent in the run-off against either Fillon or the independent Emmanuel Macron for the first time.

Still, Le Pen’s polling numbers may be less reliable than those for the mainstream candidates, according to Mayer, because fewer voters have a track record of voting for her and newly recruited sympathizers may not actually turn out to vote on May 7.

“I don’t know who I’ll vote for,” Blain, the pharmacist, said. “I’m still looking. I may decide at the last moment.”

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