Women on the far right:

Europe’s fe­male pop­ulist lead­ers

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

In a chunky black jacket and stiff jeans, Marine Le Pen, France’s most pop­u­lar and feared politi­cian, is walk­ing along the seafront at Nice on the Mediter­ranean coast. This palm-lined stretch of town is known as the Prom­e­nade des Anglais af­ter the dis­so­lute English aris­to­crats who flocked here in the 19th cen­tury, but the seafront is now no­to­ri­ous for a dif­fer­ent rea­son.

Last July, Mo­hamed La­houaiej Bouh­lel, a Tu­nisian-born Is­lamic ter­ror­ist, drove a truck into crowds celebrating France’s na­tional hol­i­day, killing 86 peo­ple and in­jur­ing hun­dreds more. Noth­ing in this fa­bled Riviera re­sort has been the same since and as Marine stops to say a few words at the spot where La­houaiej Bouh­lel was shot dead, it is hard to miss the con­nec­tion be­tween the atroc­ity and her surg­ing sup­port.

A 48-year-old, twice-mar­ried mother of three, she is rid­ing a pop­ulist wave that is sweep­ing through Europe and could, in the next few weeks, make her France’s first fe­male Pres­i­dent. Her party, the Front Na­tional, has long been de­rided for its un­whole­some – if not out­right fas­cist – lean­ings, but Marine, who took over the lead­er­ship six years ago, has worked to de­tox­ify the brand and opinion polls show her ahead of her main­stream ri­vals.

She claims France is be­ing de­stroyed by im­mi­gra­tion, par­tic­u­larly from the Mus­lim world, and that the coun­try’s or­di­nary, hard-work­ing peo­ple have lost out in the glob­alised econ­omy. She wants the coun­try to fol­low Bri­tain out of the Euro­pean Union and to re­store what she sees as its true iden­tity.

Out of her fa­ther’s shadow

Sim­i­lar themes now re­ver­ber­ate around the world – not least in Don­ald Trump’s United States – but few politi­cians have ar­tic­u­lated them more ef­fec­tively than Marine, whose suc­cess ap­pears to have in­spired a host of other fe­male pop­ulist lead­ers in Europe. Among them are Frauke Petry, 41, whose fast-grow­ing Ger­man pop­ulist move­ment now threat­ens long-serv­ing Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s 12-year grip on power, Pernille Ver­mund, a glam­orous

Dan­ish blonde whose New Right party de­mands an end to im­mi­gra­tion and free trade, and 38-year-old Vir­ginia Raggi, the first fe­male Mayor

It’s tough for any fe­male politi­cian.

of Rome, who rails against “cor­rup­tion of the elites”, in which she in­cludes both the Vatican and the Mafia.

De­spite the noisy wel­come she gets in places such as Nice, Marine Le Pen – blonde, big-boned and fond of a ci­garette – can strike a lonely fig­ure. To im­prove her party’s im­age, she ex­pelled her own hard-line fa­ther, Jean-Marie, from its ranks, creat­ing a bit­ter schism be­tween them, and keeps a dis­tance from her flam­boy­ant mother, Pier­rette, a for­mer ac­tress who once posed naked for Play­boy.

“It’s never easy,” Marine tells The Aus­tralian Women’sWeekly, crunch­ing along the shin­gle beach for a pho­to­ses­sion. “I tell my­self to keep go­ing, but it’s tough for any woman politi­cian, im­pos­si­ble, re­ally, to square with a home life and chil­dren, but this is what I be­lieve I have to do. I like to think that I’m do­ing this for my kids, for other peo­ple’s kids, too, so they can live in a bet­ter so­ci­ety, but, yes, a part of me would rather be at home.”

She jokes that “at least I got my chil­dren done fast”. All three of them – daugh­ter, Je­hanne, now 18, and twins Louis and Mathilde – were born within the space of a year. They live in a large villa out­side Paris, with Marine’s cur­rent com­pan­ion and fel­low party hon­cho Louis Aliot.

Her two marriages were rel­a­tively short-lived and although she has been with Louis since 2009, it is no se­cret that he spends a lot of time away in his own po­lit­i­cal strong­hold in France’s south. De­spite her art­ful re­fash­ion­ing of the Front’s im­age, many still con­sider her views ex­treme and danger­ous, much of the po­lit­i­cal and media es­tab­lish­ment treats her as a pariah, and pro­tes­tors reg­u­larly try to dis­rupt her meet­ings.

Marine shrugs when asked how she deals with be­ing vil­i­fied, say­ing it is the only life she has known since en­ter­ing politics as a 17-year-old, cred­it­ing the crit­i­cism with tough­en­ing her up. “In France,” she says, “if you play the es­tab­lish­ment game, you can have quite a nice time in politics. You get all the perks, you don’t get asked too many ques­tions. We have a sys­tem that keeps vot­ers in their place.”

The kind of thing she is talk­ing about is the scan­dal sur­round­ing her con­ser­va­tive ri­val, for­mer Prime Min­is­ter François Fil­lon, who is ac­cused of fun­nelling around $1 mil­lion of tax­pay­ers’ money to his Bri­tish wife, Pene­lope, for nonex­is­tent work as an as­sis­tant. How­ever, Marine, too, has come un­der scru­tiny for her party’s al­leged abuse of pub­lic funds at the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment – a claim she de­scribes as “vin­dic­tive”.

She doesn’t mince words. The truck ter­ror­ist, she says, “should never have been in France”. The awk­ward fact that La­houaiej Bouh­lel had a le­gal res­i­dency per­mit, cuts no ice. “Why did he have it? On what grounds?” she asks. “Let me tell you. He came here from Tu­nisia and de­cided to stay,

and was al­lowed to do so be­cause the sys­tem was not up to re­mov­ing him. But why? This is part of the prob­lem. We do not ask the un­der­ly­ing ques­tions. This has to stop.”

Marine says she is “bored” with be­ing asked to de­fend her­self against al­le­ga­tions of Is­lam­o­pho­bia and racism. “These are things peo­ple say be­cause their real in­ten­tion is to stop the de­bate,” she says. “I think even peo­ple who would not vote for me agree on this. We should at least have the de­bate.

“Call me a pop­ulist if you like. I don’t mind that at all. If I say what peo­ple want to hear, that is good. I don’t un­der­stand why hav­ing pop­u­lar poli­cies is wrong.”

Be­hind its en­vi­able im­age as a land of fine food, el­e­gant dress­ing and easy ro­mance, today’s France is a spooked and an­gry place, de­pressed about its eco­nomic de­cline and traumatised by a se­ries of ter­ror­ist at­tacks, mostly car­ried out by home-grown ji­hadis. Marine Le Pen’s pop­u­lar­ity has been pow­er­fully boosted by those who see im­mi­gra­tion as part of the prob­lem.

“Look, I have noth­ing against im­mi­grants who want to con­trib­ute and share our idea of France,” she says. “But we must have the right to de­cide who comes into the coun­try.”

From Nice, we have mo­tored up the coast to Men­ton, a town on the Ital­ian fron­tier, where each evening dozens of mostly African mi­grants try to cross into France. “Fron­tier” is a rel­a­tive term here, as coun­tries within the EU al­low pass­port-free travel and as the bor­der guards ad­mit, there’s lit­tle they can do to stop mi­grants cross­ing.

Marine’s tough stance on im­mi­gra­tion may be win­ning over many vot­ers, but also feeds the perception that she and her party don’t like for­eign­ers, es­pe­cially Mus­lims. She re­buts the sug­ges­tion with a mild French curse, rolling her eyes and in­sist­ing the is­sue is one of val­ues. “My sym­pa­thies are with Mus­lim women who are forced to live in a way that we, as mod­ern French women, would find in­tol­er­a­ble,” she says. “There are women in our Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties who are threat­ened and ha­rassed, and called whores if they do not wear the veil, who are not al­lowed to leave home on their own and have no real chance to par­tic­i­pate in our so­ci­ety. I say that Mus­lims are not our en­emy, but these cruel in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Is­lam are not ac­cept­able.”

She seized con­trol of the Front Na­tional in 2011, af­ter con­clud­ing that her fa­ther, the party’s founder, was too ex­treme to be electable. Jean-Marie, a rum­bus­tious, oneeyed ex-para­trooper, prone to racist di­a­tribes, had been pros­e­cuted and fined in the 1980s for de­scrib­ing the Holo­caust as “a de­tail of World War II”. When he later re­peated the re­marks, Marine had him ex­pelled.

The new Euro­pean or­der

With the first round of the French pres­i­den­tial elec­tion on April 23, opinion polls show her well ahead, with the sup­port of around 26 per cent of vot­ers. Her dif­fi­culty will come with the sec­ond round, a fort­night later, when the choice is nar­rowed down to the two high­est-scor­ing can­di­dates from round one. Most pun­dits pre­dict a “Stop Marine” strat­egy, with vot­ers on the left and moder­ate right join­ing forces to keep her out.

She says she isn’t both­ered what her op­po­nents do and cites the re­mark­able up­heavals of the past year – Brexit, Trump – as proof that the old po­lit­i­cal or­der is on the way out. “Not just here,” she says. “Or there,” point­ing to Italy. “Ev­ery­where.”

There’s no doubt that things are chang­ing fast. And in of­ten com­pli­cated ways. One of Marine’s ad­mir­ers, Frauke Petry, a slen­der, dark-haired mother of four who only en­tered politics four years ago, has at­tracted mil­lions of votes to her

If I say what peo­ple want to hear, that is good.

Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD) party. Although its stance – like the Front’s – is pri­mar­ily anti-im­mi­gra­tion and glob­al­i­sa­tion, Frauke dis­putes the idea that her party is right wing.

“I don’t think these old la­bels mean any­thing any more,” she says from her of­fice near Leipzig, in the old East Ger­many. “If you say that you want to de­fend ba­sic demo­cratic val­ues, free speech, free­dom of be­lief, the equal­ity of the sexes, etc, does that make you right wing? These are things we should all agree on and they are un­der threat in Europe.”

She claims that An­gela Merkel’s “open door” pol­icy to Mid­dle Eastern refugees has been calami­tously mis­han­dled, with no real dis­tinc­tion made be­tween gen­uine asy­lum­seek­ers and or­di­nary mi­grants chanc­ing their luck. In its de­sire to ap­pear com­pas­sion­ate and wel­com­ing, Frauke ar­gues, Ger­many has com­pro­mised its own civic stan­dards, giv­ing in to de­mands for seg­re­gated swim­ming ses­sions in pub­lic pools and ha­lal meat in schools, and turn­ing a blind eye to sex­ual at­tacks and the de­struc­tion of Chris­tian prayer rooms in hos­tels.

“A coun­try must have a ba­sic idea of what it wants to be,” she says. “Oth­er­wise, it will tear it­self apart try­ing to ac­com­mo­date ev­ery­one.

This has to be ac­cepted.”

Although shunned by the po­lit­i­cal main­stream, polls sug­gest the AfD could take more than 10 per cent of the to­tal vote in Septem­ber’s fed­eral elec­tion, an earth­quake in Ger­many’s slow-chang­ing po­lit­i­cal land­scape and enough to win the party its first seats in Par­lia­ment. “We are grow­ing all the time,” says Frauke. “The es­tab­lished par­ties don’t re­alise that the world has changed. We of­fer what we say in our name – an al­ter­na­tive.”

So fast is the pace of change that the pop­ulist pioneers of a few years ago are be­ing over­taken by even more rad­i­cal move­ments. In Den­mark, where the pop­ulist Dan­ish Peo­ple’s Party (DPP) has helped se­cure some of the tough­est im­mi­gra­tion rules in Europe, the fastest-ris­ing po­lit­i­cal star is Pernille Ver­mund, 41, founder of the New Right party, which wants even stricter con­trols and what amounts to a con­sti­tu­tional ban on mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism.

A di­vorced ar­chi­tect with three sons, Pernille, like Marine and Frauke, main­tains her views are “lib­er­tar­ian”, rather than con­ven­tion­ally right wing. The free­doms that Western so­ci­eties have taken for granted, she says, are un­der threat and must be de­fended. She dab­bled in politics in her 20s, be­com­ing a local coun­cil­lor in a Copen­hagen sub­urb, but dropped out af­ter mar­ry­ing and hav­ing chil­dren.

What brought her back, she says, was the re­al­i­sa­tion that what­ever laws it passed, Den­mark had few real pow­ers to con­trol its fron­tiers. Now she wants the coun­try to leave the EU – a move even the DPP has shied away from – and im­pose a vir­tu­ally to­tal ban on Third World im­mi­gra­tion.

“We are a small coun­try,” she says, “with a long his­tory and a strong at­tach­ment to our so­ci­ety. We think of our­selves as pretty tol­er­ant, but we get frus­trated when we feel we’re be­ing taken ad­van­tage of. It isn’t easy to start a party from scratch, but I could see there were so many peo­ple who felt as I did. Now we are grow­ing quickly. Quicker than any party be­fore.”

The first of the fe­male pop­ulists to achieve sig­nif­i­cant power is Ital­ian Vir­ginia Raggi, a chic, fast-talk­ing lawyer, who be­came Mayor of Rome last year. One of the high-fly­ers of the Five Star Move­ment, founded by co­me­dian-turned-politi­cian Beppe Grillo, she de­nounces the Ital­ian es­tab­lish­ment as cor­rupt and an ob­sta­cle to democ­racy.

Dar­ingly for Italy, she went hard af­ter the fe­male vote, por­tray­ing her­self as an em­bat­tled lone mother in a city with poor child­care, in­ad­e­quate schools, an un­fair wel­fare sys­tem and a per­va­sive ma­cho cul­ture. Hers, how­ever, is a wider plat­form, touch­ing on en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, trans­parency and what she sim­ply calls “tak­ing more pride in our­selves”.

Back in Men­ton, France, the word that Marine Le Pen is in town has spread fast and the main square is fill­ing up with her sup­port­ers. Many say they are an­gry about the mi­grants who cross the Mediter­ranean by boat from Africa and travel through Italy be­fore slip­ping into France. Marine tells them she un­der­stands and will do all she can to pro­tect the bor­der.

Then, in a stiff sea breeze, she gives her hair a quick brush, poses for a last photo-call, climbs into a car and heads off along the wind­ing coast road back to Nice. And who knows where beyond?

Vir­ginia Raggi ITALY Marine Le Pen FRANCE Frauke Petry GER­MANY Pernille Ver­mund DEN­MARK

Leader of France’s far-right Na­tional Front party Marine Le Pen spells out her poli­cies in a speech to sup­port­ers (above) in Lyon ear­lier this year, in her quest to be the first fe­male Pres­i­dent of France.

FROM LEFT: Ger­many’s Frauke Petry and Marine Le Pen at a con­fer­ence of far-right par­ties in Jan­uary; a memo­rial for those killed and in­jured in the Bastille Day 2016 at­tack on the Nice seafront; pro­tes­tors in Paris march against US Pres­i­dent Trump’s travel ban in Fe­bru­ary.

BE­LOW: Marine Le Pen speaks to re­porters on the Prom­e­nade des Anglais, Nice, in Fe­bru­ary. She blamed the at­tack here last year on the rise of Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism.

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