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The feminizing of fascism in Europe

A gender change in leadership may soften a party’s rough edges, but it should not be mistaken for progress.

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen was welcomed to the Kremlin by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017.Mikhail Klimentyev/Associated Press

In France on Sunday, far-right politician Marine Le Pen faces her second, decisive run-off election against Emmanuel Macron. But unlike in their first head-to-head final in 2017, when Macron won the presidency by defeating his rival two to one, this time pundits believe Le Pen is within striking distance of ousting the unpopular incumbent. The election of Le Pen as the first woman president of the French Republic, far from representing a progressive moment for France, would mark a new stage in resurgence of right-wing neo-fascist political movements that have been spreading throughout the West in the 21st century. And a Le Pen victory would highlight a growing strategy of these movements — softening their image but not their policies through the promotion of women to top leadership positions.

In many ways, Le Pen has pioneered this strategy over the last decade, ever since she took over leadership of her party from its founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose frequent racist, xenophobic, and antisemitic remarks often landed him in legal jeopardy and tainted the party’s image. Complete with a rebrand — changing the party’s name from the National Front to the less confrontational National Rally — the younger Le Pen has tried to present herself and her party as a mainstream conservative movement rather than an extremist threat to liberal values. In doing so, she has gotten closer to the presidency than her father ever did.

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And she has inspired imitators. The most successful has been Giorgia Meloni, head of Brothers of Italy. The irony of that masculine-named party’s becoming the first major Italian party to be led by a woman obscures the strategic nature of Meloni’s rise. Like Le Pen with the National Rally, Meloni’s leadership has allowed Brothers of Italy to distance itself from its reputation as heir to Italy’s previous extreme-right parties. Under Meloni’s stewardship, Brothers of Italy has gained ground on the other far-right parties. Meloni is widely considered a favorite to become Italy’s first female prime minister.

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The right-wing Brothers of Italy party leader Giorgia Meloni. Roberto Monaldo / LaPresse LaPre/Associated Press

Though not yet ascending to the same heights as her right-wing counterparts in France and Italy, Alice Weidel, co-leader of the parliamentary delegation of the Alternative for Germany (AfD, as it’s known in German), is a rising star of the German far right.

The ascent of women to top roles is notable because toxic masculinity has been part and parcel of the patronizing, authoritarian, moralizing, violence-prone far right. But while a gender change in leadership may soften a party’s rough edges, it should not be mistaken for policy moderation. Le Pen takes smiling pictures with a hijab-wearing girl but still seeks to ban Muslim head coverings from public spaces. Meloni uses her own success to argue against the persistence of the patriarchy and sexism in Italy. Her status as a woman who has ascended the ranks of a male-dominated sphere gives her leeway to rail against political correctness and cancel culture, even as her party engages in antisemitic tropes like slurring Jewish billionaire George Soros as a “usurer.” Weidel, who is openly gay and partnered with a woman from Sri Lanka, opposes same-sex marriage and immigration.

Far from being pawns of the right wing, politicians like Le Pen and Meloni are largely the engineers of this strategy of feminizing fascism. Le Pen did not simply inherit leadership from her father — she ruthlessly ousted him, claiming the party would be committing “political suicide” if it continued with him at its helm. Since then, she has proved to be far more adept than the elder Le Pen at achieving mainstream appeal. Meloni, without the political pedigree that Le Pen has, climbed the ladder within Brothers of Italy while displacing the ultraconservative League party as the preeminent representative of the far right. As Weidel works her way up the leadership chain in her party, she has skillfully appealed to women and the LGBTQ community in a bid to give the appearance of nuance to her policy preferences, which in substance are as restrictive as those of her straight white male colleagues on the German far right.

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Alice Weidel, co-leader of Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany party. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images

The fact that women are now leading major parties in three key European countries and have conceivable paths to become the heads of state of heavily male-dominated societies is a testament to their skills. Some might even argue that their rise is a sign of social progress.

It’s not. Le Pen, Meloni, and Weidel are staking their political fortunes on dangerously illiberal policies that negate the very progress they might otherwise represent.

Perhaps the feminizing of fascism in Europe will pressure more mainstream parties to remove barriers to women entering politics. But with democracy declining across the globe and as far-right movements enjoy increased acceptance, it’s important to recognize that giving fascism a female face will not make these parties any more moderate or less dangerous to the rights of women, minorities, and all citizens who enjoy personal freedoms. The second round of France’s presidential election on Sunday will be an important test of whether the far right’s strategy is succeeding.

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Christopher Rhodes is a lecturer in social sciences at Boston University and a lecturer in government at Harvard. Follow him on Twitter @PReligions.