Feminists sound warning for women's rights if far right wins French elections

By Jessica Phelan with RFI
Europe © Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters
© Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

While France's National Rally is enjoying record support from women voters, feminists warn that a win for the far-right party would mean a step backwards for fundamental rights.

Thousands of people took to the streets on Sunday to sound the alarm over what they call a danger to reproductive rights in particular.

Around 34,000 protesters joined more than 50 rallies across France, according to police, though organisers put the figure at over 100,000. 

It came a week before the country was due to vote in the first round of snap parliamentary elections, for which polls put the National Rally (RN) and its allies in the lead. 

"Every time the far right comes to power somewhere, it attacks the right to abortion – I don't see why France would be any exception," Sarah Durocher, head of reproductive rights organisation Planning Familial, told reporters.

Abortion rights are better protected in France than many other countries, having been written into the constitution earlier this year – with the support of 46 of the RN's 88 members of parliament. 

But as legal experts have warned, that wouldn't stop a future government erecting logistical roadblocks to make terminating a pregnancy harder, such as reducing the legal time limit or restricting abortion drugs.

Wooing women's votes

Jordan Bardella, leader of the RN and the party's candidate for prime minister, has promised that as premier he would "unswervingly guarantee every girl and woman in France her rights and freedoms". 

"In France, women are free and so they will remain," he declared in a video posted on social media last week addressed to female voters. 

Since Marine Le Pen took over the party in 2011 from her father – co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen – and undertook to make it more palatable to mainstream voters, the rebranded RN has been at pains to portray itself as sympathetic to women's struggles.

The strategy has borne fruit, as Marine Le Pen steadily narrowed the traditional gender gap in the party's support base in presidential polls in 2012 and 2017.

In European elections earlier this month, polls showed almost as many women as men voted for the RN.

Immigration fixation

But despite the current leadership's assurances, feminists remain suspicious of a movement that has historically campaigned against abortion, resisted legislation on equal pay and proposed paying a "maternal wage" to women who choose to raise children full time.

The far right "has always been the driving force behind the dissolution of our rights", said Nina, 24, one of at least 13,000 protesters to join the march in Paris on Sunday. (That was the police estimate; according to organisers, 75,000 people turned out.) 

"Their vision of society is that women are there to procreate," she told RFI. "And procreation, for them, means going back into the home."

The anti-immigration RN has long argued that France needs to boost its birth rate to avoid relying on foreign workers. 

"If we don't create the conditions that encourage births in our country, other civilisations will do it for us," Bardella declared last year, as he called for child benefits to be reserved for French families only.

Feminist groups warn that the RN's preoccupation with "keeping France French" trumps all other concerns, including women's rights.

The party has repeatedly linked sexual violence to immigrants as grounds for deportation and wants to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves anywhere in public – supposedly to discourage discrimination, though the party has a history of hostility to Islam in France.

'Good' and 'bad' victims

"The National Rally analyses everything through the prism of immigration," said Anne-Cécile Mailfert, founder of the Fondation des Femmes, a foundation that channels funding to grassroots women's groups and one of the organisers of Sunday's march.

Speaking to FranceInfo, she pointed out that gender-based violence is usually committed by someone the victim knows, not a stranger, and that France's foreign residents are also at risk from it.

"Tomorrow, the National Rally will separate out the 'good' victims – proper French women – from the 'bad' victims, who will no longer have access to emergency shelters," Mailfert warned.

Even without going that far, an RN government could also harm women's rights by doing nothing to advance them.

The party's record in both the French and European parliaments shows it opposing or abstaining from votes on increasing women's access to high-level positions in the civil service; toughening penalties for sexual harassment and violence; setting an EU directive on pay transparency to fight the gender wage gap; introducing anti-harassment training within European institutions; and adding the right to abortion in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

But activists who joined the protests on Sunday told RFI they feared voters would be swayed by the RN's words, not its actions.

"There's no debate of ideas," said Camille, 28. "They're stirring up fears and playing on emotions. It feels to me like we're falling headfirst."

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Started: 02-07-2024 | Ends: 31-10-2024