Women on the far right:
Europe’s female populist leaders
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.