In September, Marine Le Pen travelled to Brachay, a microscopic right-wing commune in northeastern France. Despite its diminutive size, this French locality has the greatest percentage of Front National voters – 72 per cent - so its politicians consider it emblematic. With her raucous gusto, produced thanks to decades of smoking, Le Pen regaled the local, mainly middle-aged assembly with a Trump-like speech, claiming she was there to listen to ‘les oubliés de la France’, the forgotten voices of this country, all 59 of them.
There she was, in an outfit the French media appropriately described as ‘Madame Tout Le Monde’. In other words, Madame Everybody (if not quite Anybody) — a qualifier that would suit most of her sartorial choices these last few years. The outfit included a black v-neck zip-up blouse revealing her solid arms, matched with loose trousers. It looked like something a busy mother might wear, but it was hardly the outfit of an aspiring president. And it was the polar opposite of the stereotypical feminine Française ideal.
Clothing has been central to Marine Le Pen’s strategy ever since she was first elected president of the Front National in 2011. Back then, she set herself the near-impossible task of restyling the party. She has since laundered the party’s image – and her choice of clothing has played a key role in this.
During the 2012 elections, she appeared somewhat disheveled. While attending an important meeting at the European Parliament, it looked as if she had forgotten to remove a turquoise plastic clip from her signature flick-up hair do. But what seemed at first like a clumsy mistake was actually a carefully staged exercise. As one Le Monde journalist put it, it was done to suggest 'she is as comfortable and at home in the political sphere as she is in her own bathroom’.
This is, of course, in stark contrast with some of the highly sexualised women to be found on the French political scene. Figures such as Rachida Dati, former Minister of Justice, or deputy Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet cruise round the Palais de l’Elysée in haute couture. They are renowned for their taste in black leather and thigh-high boots. Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, has opted for a reassuring mumsy image, which creates a sense that the Front National is a party that represents the ‘Motherland’, a term Sophie Fontanel, a French fashion columnist, has used to described her look.
Le Pen also proudly claims that she shops at Usine Center, a discount clothing shop. It’s a convenient way of concealing her upbringing in the upper-class suburb of Neuilly. Although she takes great pains to hide it, Marine comes from a privileged background, a world away from the working-class vote she is relying on. Her array of peasant blouses, ruffles and polka dots are all chosen to create a look designed to appeal to the members of the electorate she needs votes from. But it also helps reinforce the image of a selfless female, who has chosen to ignore the male gaze for the greater good of France. Quite a sacrifice in a country where seduction is a major strategy, and where, since Louis XIV, rulers run away in the middle of the night to visit their lovers—and always get away with it.
Now with her sights set on next year’s presidential election, an evolution both in her speech and in her clothing seems to be taking place. Le Pen now wears simple black garments, and the occasional power suit, as if to remind people of her former life as a lawyer. Yet her outfits are inevitably poorly cut and a study in frumpiness. In other words, obviously affordable. Through her clothes, she is promising that public money will be spent parsimoniously. It's another move to disassociate herself further from her father, who famously indulged in tailor-made three-piece suits.
This streamlined version of her look also mirrors the message she is promoting for the 2017 presidential elections. On her website, she no longer uses her last name, simply calling the campaign Marine2017. It highlights the symbolic meaning of the colour blue - which is what her first name means - and its association with honesty, wisdom and conservative Christian values. Gone is the notorious tricolor, the traditional symbol of the Front National. As for the tag-line for her campaign, she has opted for ‘La France Apaisée’ - Pacified France – in an effort to counter the popular argument that there will be civil war in France if she wins.
At the same time, Marine Le Pen has been hard at work making her image more 'normal' and homely: she appeared on the cover of Public magazine wearing a rather unflattering tricolor swimsuit. On her blog, she now makes a point of showing herself hugging her pets – but, interestingly, never her own children. She wants to be seen as motherly, but without having to resort to using family pictures, perhaps in order to avoid discussion of her own more alternative life choices. She is twice divorced and is currently living with her boyfriend. As David Doucet put it, the message is ‘I am a free woman, a mother, a French woman and I have committed myself to my country’. It remains to be seen how this complex sartorial strategy will pay off at the elections next year.
Alice Pfeiffer is a Paris-based fashion reporter for Le Monde. She has also contributed to The New York Times, The Guardian, i-D and Vogue.