While French radical-right leader Marine Le Pen was delivering the speech that launched her 2017 presidential campaign, she stood as a solitary figure on stage at the Lyon Congress Hall, with two giant blue roses projected to each side, and the populist campaign slogan, “in the name of the people,” hovering high above her.
Wearing the signature understated masculine suit she always wears at highly mediatized events, Le Pen cut a strong silhouette on stage. At the end of her speech, the audience roared in excitement as she was handed a solitary blue rose, her campaign symbol. Although Le Pen had laboriously presented her new presidential programme for nearly an hour, each closing performative detail, down to the final chivalric gesture and the dramatic background music, had been orchestrated to elicit goosebumps, an emotional arousal felt on the body.
Political scientist Benjamin Moffitt argues that populism is, above all, a performative repertoire which has capitalized on the intensive mediatization of social and political life. It is a stylized performance which conveys a thin – but highly effective – ideology of antipathy to elites and claims to represent “the people.”
Populists such as Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, and Nigel Farage aim to stir emotions. They seek to activate feelings of adulation for themselves, love for the insider people they claim to represent, and repugnance against rival political elites and those supposedly outside ‘the people’. They choreograph performances whose political communication strategy may be minimal in policy content, but maximal in emotional impact.
As a sociologist who has been observing up close the French National Front, now the Rassemblement National, since 2013, I continue to be struck by the emotionally vivid universe created by the party. Theirs is not only a Manichean universe of good and bad, of the people and its enemies, but an emotionally intense cosmos of love and hate.
Theirs is not only a Manichean universe of good and bad, of the people and its enemies, but an emotionally intense cosmos of love and hate.
This is where gender comes in. Conjuring love and hate is effectively achieved by populists through their outlandish enactments of masculinity and femininity. Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell explains that masculinity and femininity are not only performances of a supposedly natural and complementary binary distinction between the two, but are also experienced in our bodies, and in our emotions, as performances which arouse pleasure, desire, discomfort, or disgust. When populists perform farcically clichéd repertoires of femininity or masculinity, they arouse these very feelings of love and hate.
A male populist like Donald Trump cultivates exuding macho bravado and the brash self-assurance of an American corporate baron. There was not the slightest shame on his part when he could be heard in a leaked recording of himself, released one month before his 2016 election, telling a television host how he likes to grab women “by the pussy.” On the contrary, Trump takes a page out of the male populist playbook by acting out a cartoonish dramatization of masculine swagger. He is a lothario, family patriarch, and a real estate tycoon in baggy 1980s Wall Street suits. Trump’s twitter persona and his campaign road-show aspire to stimulate goosebumps of admiration, desire, and if he’s not one’s cup of tea, of disgust.
For a woman populist like Marine Le Pen, an even wider repertoire is at her disposal. While she cannot mine the low depths of crude language and boorish behaviour available to a man, she aims for goosebump politics just like other populists. As a woman, she also nurtures the warm fuzzy feeling of being part of a close family. Le Pen performs stereotypical repertoires of femininity, but also of masculinity, both of which are the objects of admiration and emulation within her party.
During my years of observing party events and interviews with rank-and-file party activists, conversations would focus extensively on the figure of Marine Le Pen, as a political persona, and literally, as a body. Activists old and young revelled in analyzing her clothes, deep voice, and romantic choices. Exhibiting familiarity with these intimate details signalled that one was a member of the club.
Party members viewed her as quintessentially feminine by seeing her as a daughter of the party, as a maternal and caring woman, and even as a sexual object. Older party members in the southeast of France, the traditional cradle of the party, fondly recalled watching her grow up within the party. They remembered meeting her as a young girl, travelling the country with her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and attending political events. Many simply called her Marine, suggesting a familial closeness with her.
Prior to forcing Jean-Marie Le Pen out of the party in 2015, national party events frequently presented Marine Le Pen with her beamingly proud father next to her. Although many lamented what one elderly activist called “the divorce” between her and her father, they insisted that Marine was still exactly like him. An educational advisor and member of the party’s National Bureau, a woman who is Marine Le Pen’s age and had experienced a political conversion after meeting Jean-Marie Le Pen, admired how Le Pen had been raised by a remarkable father. Unlike the professional politicians leading France today, whom she harshly judged as acting out of strategic interest, she saw Marine as a virtuous leader who “carries the party’s history in her guts.”
A dancing Joan of Arc
Party activists perceived Marine as the political daughter born to lead, a natural heiress for whom the party was written into her DNA, and whose lineage has fated her to defend French history and civilization. Her speeches recurrently refer to Joan of Arc, with campaign images depicting her next to Joan of Arc statues or billboards. Even French cinema icon Brigitte Bardot has called Le Pen “the Joan of Arc of the twenty-first century.”
Since Marine Le Pen became party leader in 2011, she has strategically sought to cultivate a new generation of party members. Young activists see Le Pen as a maternal figure who nurtures and protects the young. Like her father before her, Marine Le Pen methodically traverses the country to attend local party events. Many young activists had met her at such small happenings. One young woman was surprised by Le Pen’s approachability. When she first met her at a party gathering, she was charmed to discover that Le Pen liked to talk about her cats, who washes the dishes at home, and similarly “average joe” topics.
One young woman was surprised by Le Pen’s approachability.
Another young male activist described Le Pen as nothing less than the mother of the nation: “She’s the one who takes care of her children, little French people, and who wants to put them all on the right path.”
Even more unusual for a female political leader, Le Pen presents herself at closed party gatherings in a sexualized manner. At the party’s summer university in Marseilles in 2013, the otherwise lacklustre event attended mainly by retirees and some party die-hards suddenly buzzed with excitement when Le Pen appeared during a break, causing a stir in a mini skirt and towering stiletto heels.
Attendees flocked around her to take selfies with their party leader. Showing her feminine side again at a party event outside the public eye, she appeared in skirt and heels at a gala dinner in Lyon during the weekend when she formally launched her 2017 presidential campaign. The dinner ended with a live music performance by a group of ABBA impersonators, and guests swarmed around her and the party leadership as she danced under a sparkling disco ball on the dance floor.
But when appearing at major televised events, Le Pen mobilizes her deep voice and tall frame covered in a black suit to take on a masculine persona. The day after the ABBA party, she donned such a black suit to make her closing speech. Supporters adore her for this duality, a woman whose unadorned legs they have witnessed up close, but who on stage, and on screen, exudes, in the words of a young woman activist, a “virile force,” which sets her apart from the rest of the political class.
Le Pen can even be seen as more masculine and authoritative than other male politicians. A young male activist saw her as capable of wearing a captain’s suit like that of General de Gaulle. Whereas he could not imagine former French Presidents François Holland and Nicolas Sarkozy filling a captain’s suit, he believed it was tailor-made for Marine Le Pen, “who is more capable of fulfilling the functions of a head of state.”
Whereas other female political leaders are punished electorally if they are seen as too masculine, or as too sexual, Marine Le Pen as a rightwing populist is rather adored by supporters for her extraordinary ability to be a sexual and caring woman, and a virile masculine figure at the same time.
Most analyses of populism tend to view gender relations, and performances of masculinity and femininity, as a side-note to the core substance of populism, a kind of performative or rhetorical bit of fluff which does not define contemporary populism. But do not imagine that party members constantly debate their political ideology, their leader’s policy platforms, their hatred of elites, or their love for “the people.” Rather, a common topic of discussion relates to Marine Le Pen’s looks or the outfits she wears at particular events. I even overheard a group of women energetically debating this during a speech Le Pen was delivering after a May 1 march to Paris’s Joan of Arc Square, instead of listening to what their leader had to say.
Sociological observations of the party lay bare how Marine Le Pen cleverly deploys exaggerated masculinity and femininity to foster admiration for herself, and repugnance for others. She is a woman who not only carries the party’s history in her guts, but who aims for the gut as the essence of her populist strategy.
She is a woman who not only carries the party’s history in her guts, but who aims for the gut as the essence of her populist strategy.
If populism is a performative repertoire with a thin ideology encapsulating claims to represent the people and hatred of elites, performing exaggerated masculinity and femininity through these emotive messages, binds these leaders to their followers’ hearts and bodies.