On Europe’s Far Right, Female Leaders Look to Female Voters
UNITED NATIONS — Some of Europe’s most successful far-right politicians are women. There is Marine Le Pen of France, of course. But also Frauke Petry of Germany, Siv Jensen of Norway and Pia Kjaersgaard of Denmark, who is something of a pioneer in the new wave of anti-immigrant populism sweeping through Europe.
They are leading, or have recently led, what were once fringe parties — pushing their extremist views to the political mainstream and seeking to appeal to those who once eschewed their parties: female voters.
Some of them are also eyeing their country’s highest office. Ms. Le Pen is vying to be president of France in elections scheduled to start in April, and if she wins an expected runoff in May (a long shot, admittedly) she could be the first far-right leader to be directly elected as a European head of state.
Gender issues don’t much get the attention of far-right parties, whether led by men or women. The parties don’t support gender quotas in politics, as many centrist and left parties do, nor do they campaign on issues like equal pay. Abortion and gay rights are not lightning rod political issues for conservatives as they are in the United States, so they tend not to be ideological tinder in Europe.
Gender is a useful wedge, though, when it comes to highlighting what has become one of their main planks: a critique of immigration, particularly from the Muslim world. The European far right has long seized on the hijab as a symbol of patriarchy; more recently it has said that attacks on gays and women in Muslim enclaves are evidence of the Islamic threat to European values.
Ms. Le Pen, in an opinion essay published in a French daily, L’Opinion, used the mass sexual attacks in Cologne, Germany, on New Years’ Eve in 2015 to call for a referendum on immigration to France. “I am scared that the migrant crisis signals the beginning of the end of women’s rights,” she wrote. Ms. Le Pen is also making a bid to woo gay voters, whom her father, the party’s founder, once openly berated.
Ruth Wodak, a professor at Lancaster University in Britain, called Ms. Le Pen’s appeals on gender issues “opportunistic.”
“They defend ‘our’ women against harassment by foreigners — strangers, migrants, Muslim men,” says Ms. Wodak, the author of “The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean.” “However, they never spoke out against sexual harassment before.”
How unusual is it for a woman to lead a nativist party? About as unusual as it is for a woman to head any political party. While some are part of political dynasties, as in the case of Ms. Le Pen, others are self-made.
Ms. Petry, a former chemist and businesswoman, ousted a former Europe-focused leader of the Alternative for Germany and turned it into a squarely nationalist party. Her platform for the national elections scheduled for this fall takes aim at foreigners — and at the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, for embracing them.
Ms. Kjaersgaard, one of the earliest forerunners of the European far right, established the Danish People’s Party in 1995 and turned what were once considered fringe, racist ideas about restricting immigration into a potent political force.
Her party has been crucial in supporting a minority government and has shaped policy as a result. Ms. Kjaersgaard is now the speaker of the Danish Parliament, though no longer the party leader.
Ms. Jensen pushed her anti-immigrant Progress Party into a coalition government in Norway for the first time — and snagged for herself an influential cabinet post as finance minister. She describes herself as a free-market conservative in the Thatcherite tradition. But she too has seized on fears of Islam, warning in a widely criticized 2009 speech about the “sneaking Islamization” of European society.
Female leaders in Europe span the ideological spectrum. Two of the Continent’s most powerful leaders, Ms. Merkel of Germany and Theresa May of Britain, are on opposite sides of Britain’s plan to leave the European Union.
Does the far right draw female voters? Not so much, but they are beginning to.
One study, carried out across 17 countries by Swedish and Dutch scholars and published in late 2015 in an academic journal called Patterns of Prejudice, found women less likely than men to vote for what the study called the “populist radical right” — but not because women were against the ideology.
Men are neither more “nativist” nor “authoritarian,” compared with women, the study found, nor do women evince less “discontent” with their governments. Women by and large were deterred from voting for the radical right by other things, including the populist right’s “political style, occasional association with historic violence, stigmatization by parts of the elite and the general public” — in other words, their outlier-ness.
That is where the gender of the leader can make a positive difference for the far right, said Cas Mudde, a Dutch scholar of the European far right.
In the media, he argued, male leaders are often cast as power-hungry zealots. “Female politicians are represented as softer,” said Mr. Mudde, who teaches at the University of Georgia. “For a radical right politician it can be actually very good.”
Sometimes, gender can make a difference in who wins. In Austria late last year, a larger share of women — and a significantly larger share of young, educated women — voted for the leftist party, helping to defeat the nativist candidate for president. Both parties’ candidates were men.
Ms. Le Pen’s prospects in the French polls this spring will depend significantly on her ability to woo women, just as the success of far-right parties on the Continent more broadly will rest on their ability to bridge the gender gap.
Consider Nonna Mayer’s research on the National Front’s record.
In 2002, when it was headed by Ms. Le Pen’s firebrand, Holocaust-denying father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party won a far larger share of men’s votes than women’s. In 2012, by the time Ms. Le Pen took over the party, the gender gap had virtually vanished, only to return again in midterm polls since then.
Ms. Mayer, a political scientist, said the gender gap for populist right wing parties could vary from one country to another and from one election to the next. For Ms. Le Pen, she said, “the test will be the coming presidential election.”Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/02/world/europe/political-strategy-for-europes-far-right-female-leaders-wooing-female-voters.html?_r=0