Women of France, rejoice! A man has been elected President

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Ask a Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week, political commentator, Agnès Poirier, explains why Emmanuel Macron is a far better win for feminism than having the first French female president be Marine Le Pen. 

Women of France, rejoice! A man has been elected President. Between the feminist Macron and the misogynist Le Pen, it was always a clear choice. But one that sometimes felt uncertain.

Uncertain, because for a long time, Marine Le Pen, 49, hardly set a foot wrong. Since taking over the leadership from her father in 2011, she purged the extreme right party from the most xenophobic voices, took her distance with her father’s dodgy Vichy friends, and, really seemed to detoxify the National Front.

The illusion she built was very convincing, and did  indeed convince many women

She managed to appear as a respectable and measured nationalist, almost on par with the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon. She even recently adopted left wing economics, quoting Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, and declaring she would fight austerity to save France’s Welfare State. She even argued that Frexit and returning to the Franc and leaving the euro currency would help protect French jobs.What she didn’t say is that it would ruin people’s savings.

The illusion she built was very convincing, and did indeed convince many women, especially those in precarious jobs in the retail and services industries.

Unlike her father, Jean-Marie - who attracted mostly old male voters - she has over the years considerably broadened her electorate base to the point of attracting as many female – and often young female voters – as male ones. However, it was just an illusion. Populism is probably the worse threat to feminism and gender equality. Not to mention Le Pen’s cosying up to machos-in-chief Trump and Putin.

Présidente Marine Le Pen would have been terrible news for women

Marine Le Pen used women issues to promote her backward views on immigration. She attacked religions’ patriarchy and misogyny, an argument which always, and rightly, appeals to some feminists, but one she used mostly for xenophobic purposes. In other words, for the last six years, Marine Le Pen has been a wizard with words, hijacking progressive ideas and icons, from the Welfare State to Charles de Gaulle and Simone de Beauvoir, to deceive the French electorate. This, the woman who declared:  “If you come to our country, don’t expect that you will be taken care of.”

How wrong it would have been to believe her, or for women to think she was the answer to their problems just because she was a woman, and admittedly a rather formidable one (I spent two hours with her in a room, she undeniably has charisma and is a very strong presence). In fact, Présidente Marine Le Pen would have been terrible news for women.

She might have been born in 1968, a twice-divorced single mother of three and a former lawyer, thus wearing all the ornaments of modernity, but the party she embraced was anything but modern. The National Front used to say, not so long ago, that the place of women was at home, by the stove, as mothers and home-makers. And, as her father, the former paratrooper Jean-Marie Le Pen used to say, abortion is “genocide.”

And the third generation Le Pen, represented by Marine’s niece, the 27 year-old MP Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, is as terrifyingly retrograde on this question as the old Jean-Marie, campaigning for the end to “the full and unlimited reimbursement of abortion” in France.

Emmanuel Macron, in stark contrast, is great news for women. For the first time in French political history, he promised to achieve gender parity and present a battalion of women candidates to the next June general elections. He will also most probably follow in the steps of President Hollande and choose a government that delivers on equality with as many and perhaps even more female ministers than male ministers.

In his speech at the Louvre on Sunday evening, an hour after being elected by 65% of French voters, Macron told his compatriots that he would serve them with love. L’amour toujours. That was a first, and the sign that perhaps one could try and govern in different ways in order to reconcile a divided country.

There are other things to like about Macron the feminist.

For instance, his relationship with women. If his policies prove his feminism, his private life shows that he is different from many of his predecessors known for their womanising. Until her recent death, Macron used to call his grandmother every evening on the phone.

He is also happily married to Brigitte, 25 years his senior, his former French teacher whom he fell in love with when he was 15. Ten years later, still a student, he married her. Emmanuel and Brigitte have been together ever since and their story, albeit original and unusual, is an enduring success.

Very soon though, we can expect to see a French woman Prime Minister sharing photo ops with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the British Prime Minister Theresa May.

And although Brigitte retired from her job as a French teacher two years to help him in his work, don’t call her a trophy wife. She is anything but. It is clear that she means business and appears rather as a mentor figure, a coach and an adviser with the benefit of experience and age. Indeed, Macron pledged in his political manifesto to finally give an official status to France’s first lady, with an office, a staff and clear tasks.

It is some relief to think that, unlike his predecessor, President Macron will not be found out gallivanting on a scooter in the streets of Paris, going from his official lover’s bed to his secret one’s. Do you remember President Hollande wearing a black helmet, being driven to a flat Rue du Cirque near the Elysées Palace, to see his secret lover actress Julie Gayet, with his bodyguard delivering croissants at dawn? Foolish, and rather undignified.

There is even a cherry on the cake: President Macron is likely going to appoint a female Prime Minister.

François Mitterrand did it once before, in 1991, but Edith Cresson only lasted a few months in the job and the experience was not repeated. Very soon though, we can expect to see a French woman Prime Minister sharing photo ops with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Too bad Hillary Clinton didn’t make it as US President, it would have been quite a sight to see them all discussing world affairs. Soon.

Images: Rex Features

Send your feminist dilemmas to Ask a Feminist editor harriet.hall@stylist.co.uk and she'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.