PARIS — In a week, Marine Le Pen could become the first woman to win the French presidency. But she sells herself that way only some of the time.
When Le Pen took to the stage to claim her victory in the first round of the vote, there was no talk of the proverbial glass ceiling or any mention of women, girls or gender.
But gender has played a significant, if subtle, role in Marine Le Pen’s astonishingly successful 2017 campaign to bring her extremist party from Europe’s political fringe into the halls of political power, analysts say. In her writings and speeches this year, it has operated quietly and constantly, and mostly with one particular purpose: stigmatizing Muslims.
“She’s used the gender card for her own benefit,” said Cecile Alduy, the author of a well-known book on Le Pen’s rhetoric and a professor of French politics at Stanford University. “But always, and only, to denigrate Islam. She hardly ever speaks of the feminine condition except to target Islam and immigrants.”
In fact, in the public eye, Le Pen, the female leader of a party that has opposed women’s rights throughout its 55-year history, has a complicated relationship with gender. On the one hand, she is ultimately the only female candidate seeking power in a political system still dominated by men. On the other, in her capacity as a deputy in the European Parliament, she has repeatedly voted against resolutions that advocates say would have improved women’s health and safety.
On Wednesday, Le Pen’s campaign unveiled its new slogan for the final round of the vote: “Choose France,” written across a portrait of the candidate. Given that the French Republic has long represented itself with a female avatar — Marianne, the goddess of liberty, whose face adorns nearly every town hall and administrative building across the country — the choice was not without significance. In a bitterly contested presidential race whose focus is ultimately France’s national identity, the message, for some critics, was clear enough: Marianne is Marine, and Marine is white and blonde.
When she ran — unsuccessfully — for the presidency in 2012, she never emphasized her gender during her campaign and made no attempt to target female voters. This was probably a political calculation, experts say, based on the outcome of the previous French election in 2007, when Ségolène Royal, a Socialist who qualified for the final round of the vote, made appealing to women a major campaign objective. In the end, Royal was unsuccessful: Despite her pitch, most French women backed her opponent, the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.
But this year, Le Pen, who has often panned identity politics as a “communitarianism” hostile to universal equality, appears to have changed her tactic.
In scenarios once difficult to imagine, she has been citing prominent feminist thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Élisabeth Badinter on the campaign trail. She talks about herself as “a mother, a Frenchwoman.” And she frequently appeals to “the fights of our grandmothers” when she speaks.
In France, the question of national identity has manifested itself most recently in debates about the female body — specifically whether certain types of face- or body-covering garments that some Muslim women wear violate the creed of a nominally secular society. In 2004, the French government banned the headscarf in public schools, and in 2010, the face-covering burqa. A major controversy of 2016 was over the “burkini,” a bathing suit that allowed certain Muslim women to enjoy the beach while respecting traditional codes of modesty.
Le Pen has been quick to capitalize on these long-brewing culture wars.
In February, for instance, she refused to wear a headscarf to a meeting in Lebanon with a prominent Muslim leader. Then she told reporters that her objection stemmed from her commitment to female emancipation.
“They wanted to impose this on me, to present me with a fait accompli,” she said then. “Well, no one presents me with a fait accompli.”
In “Notebooks of Hope,” the blog she maintains on her campaign website, Le Pen published a post on March 8, International Women’s Day, titled “With Me, French Women Will Stay Free.” In a significant break with her standard line, she wrote that she was speaking as a woman to the women of her country.
But the major issue she emphasized was not, for instance, the salary discrepancy between women and men, around 17 percent in France. Instead, more than half of the essay focused on what she called “a much more profound threat to the condition of women in our country today,” which she identified as “the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in our neighborhoods and in our cities.”
French feminist groups — a significant number of which have publicly rejected Le Pen — frequently say that her use of Muslim immigrants exposes a deep hypocrisy in her beliefs.
After reports from German authorities that “North African or Arabic” migrants assaulted women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve in 2015, Le Pen published an op-ed in which she wrote that “the migrant crisis signals the beginning of the end of women’s rights.”
But Claire Serre-Combe, a spokeswoman and activist for the prominent organization Osez le féminisme! (Dare to Be Feminist!), said that Le Pen has remained comparatively silent when reports of domestic violence perpetrated by white men have similarly captivated the public eye.
According to Alduy, Le Pen does not make too much of women’s issues.
“She is very smart about not saying too much about women’s rights: Contrary to her father, she does not propose to abolish abortion rights, but she let her niece, Marion, promise to cut funding to France’s version of Planned Parenthood.”
In an interview at her Paris office earlier this month, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, now 27 and an elected member of France’s National Assembly from Vaucluse, said that she hated the word “gender.”
“You mean ‘sex’?” she asked. “Because I’m against ‘gender theory.’ ”
Maréchal-Le Pen, like her aunt, a divorced single mother, has been a sharp critic of French abortion rights in recent years. But in the interview she disputed the allegation, saying only that she opposed “the unlimited reimbursement of abortion.”
Asked about her experience as a woman in politics, Maréchal-Le Pen said she found it mostly an asset.
“I can catch people’s attention and I have a stronger voice to connect with audiences, because of my youth and the way I express myself,” she said.
Marine Le Pen, whose aides declined an interview, has carefully honed her own mode of expression.
In the essay she wrote for International Women’s Day, she concluded: “With me, in the country of Brigitte Bardot, women will stay free!”
Bardot — a white, blonde French actress from the 1960s and a well-known fan of Le Pen — was prosecuted in 2008 for inciting racial hatred after she wrote that Muslims were “destroying our country by imposing their ways.”