Clinton, Le Pen, Merkel: Does Power Have a Gender?

Renate Schroeder, Camille Petit

Май 13, 2017

 Eleanor Roosevelt was probably right when she once said “Every woman in public life needs to develop skin as tough as rhinoceros hide.” Hillary Clinton (1947), Angela Merkel (1954) and Marine Le Pen (1968) have for sure a hard shell which gave them a special fate. In a male-dominated world of politics, their gender was sometimes a weakness, sometimes a strength but never a constraint.
This motto, Clinton born Rodham make it hers. Raised in Chicago, she has been shaping her career throughout her life. First by campaigning for the Republicans at 18. Then as a lawyer advocating for women’s and children’s rights. Marine Le Pen was following somehow a similar path. Born in the chic Parisian suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine, she is the youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the Front National (FN). She started her career first as a FN member also at the age of 18, then as a lawyer defending FN supporters as well as undocumented immigrants.
By contrast, Angela Merkel, born Kasner, is first of all a scientific. Her rise to power as a woman was not fated. Who could have foreseen that a daughter of a protestant pastor, who grew up in the former GDR – though born in West Germany – could become Chancellor of a party dominated by West German Catholics? She entered politics in the stormy days of 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall served as catalyst for her political career, joining soon after the party Democratic Awakening, which in 1990 merged with the East German CDU.
Today, Clinton, Le Pen and Merkel are the female faces of three different parties – the American left-wing, the French far-right, the German center-conservatives – which defend sometimes contrasting values. But a common strength seems to unify these three leaders who engaged into politics from a very young age, and never stopped striving after the top posts.


The possibly true legend says that the Clintons would have sealed a secret pact giving themselves twenty years to revolutionise the Democrats and propel Bill to the US Presidency. But what about Hillary? Being just a window dressing – “no thanks”. Indeed, as the First Lady from 1993 to 2001, she played a bigger role - quite close to the co-presidency – and took the lead in the health care reform for what will be one of her biggest political battle. In November 2000, Hillary Clinton was elected as the first female US Senator for New York City. But the failure in adopting a healthcare reform so close to her heart, the Lewinskygate in 1998 as well as the defeat against Barack Obama in 2008 were violent enough to possibly stop her. Her tenacity got the upper hand: Clinton, who had been preparing to be US President at least since the year 2003, decided to run a second time for election for one of the world most powerful political figures. History will remind that she did win the popular vote against Donald Trump, though lost the election.
In France, Marine Le Pen won several battles but never triumphed. First, she successfully took over her father’s party to make it better suited to her despite the constant attacks against her family name which she proudly carries. Second, she doubled the number of voters between 2002 and 2017 from 5,5 million to 10,6 million. Third, she succeeded in transforming the Front National into the main alternative to the long-established parties. But still, it is neither represented at the regional level, nor at the legislative one (only two seats out of 577). Her latest defeat on May 7 during the French presidential election is one more evidence that Marine Le Pen has difficulty in breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ which prevents her to access the highest office.
Angela Merkel is widely considered as one of the most powerful politicians in the world, among both men and women head of states. Merkel has been seen by the International press as “the last defender of the liberal west”. With her motto “wir schaffen das” (we can make it) after she had opened the borders to let refugees enter Germany in 2015, her reputation for a human rights defender grew in Europe and around the world, while her own party and an ever bigger proportion of Germany’s population grew increasingly hostile. Merkel has been compared by many in the English-speaking world with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She was even called the Iron Lady or Iron Frau, while others nicknamed her ‘Mutti’ (a German form of mother used in the 50s and 60s). Though not a mother figure, she has been able to give the impression to Germans and Europeans alike to be the last “Bollwerk” (stronghold) against the growing populists and Trumpists of this world. For this reason and after great reflection, she decided to run a fourth time for election to be held in September this year. At the moment, the “Merkel Effekt” looks rather positive: after two victories of the CDU in two German Länder, there is optimism within her party that Merkel can make it and run for a fourth time against former European Parliament President Martin Schulz from the SPD, the leading economy in Europe.


Clinton, Merkel and Le Pen have today achieved a remarkable political career which will go down in history. All three have been the “first to” in their own countries. Before Clinton, no woman had ever been nominated by a major party for the presidency, and no First Lady had ever run for President. Angela Merkel was the first women to become president of her political party and then Chancellor of Germany. Marine Le Pen failed in being elected first French women President but she really uses for the first time in France her gender as a political strategy during the campaign.
By contrast to Clinton and Merkel, Le Pen – who likes to be simply called “Marine” – put aside her trouser suit for a short skirt even showing a little leg in her last campaign poster. Another symbol: the flame was replaced by a blue rose. This is part of a broader strategy of “dediabolisation” aiming to soften the image of the party. Like Merkel and Clinton, Le Pen has been in politics for so long that voters tend to forget that she is a woman. The rectification was clearly made in her last campaign clip, where she introduces herself saying “I am a woman, I am a mother”. Proud of being a modern working mum, strong but feminine: this was Le Pen’s new message.
Yet the improvement of women’s rights was not high on her agenda as it remains strictly limited to the protection of women’s freedom against Islamic customs, like the veil. The last example dates back to February 2017, when she refused to cover her head for meeting Lebanon’s mufti during an official visit in Beyrouth. “I defend women’s rights against Islamic fundamentalism. I am the only one talk about the issue‚” she said on the French radio in March 2017. This seems to be working as the female vote in favour of the Front National is growing. Communication strategy or convictions, Le Pen joins both Clinton and Merkel in the circle of women leaders who refused to wear the veil while meeting officials in the Middle-East. However, Marine’s work for improving gender equality is meagre. Neither at the French Assembly, nor at the European Parliament, the Front National ever supported any text promoting women’s rights – except the one about the free consultation of anti-abortion websites.
By contrast, Hillary since the beginning of her career followed a feminist agenda with gender equality and human rights, in particular children’s rights at the center. While she never shied away to be called a feminist, “Angie” never put gender into her agenda. When she was recently asked on whether she considered herself a feminist, she hesitated a lot admitting that she does not like labels. Though she has not given priority to gender equality, it should be said that the conservative CDU has improved its image these last years by giving more and more female leaders the chance of important offices at both federal and Laender level, and introducing some – though not revolutionary but important legislation on child care and equal opportunity. One reason is the female quota but another is certainly that Angela Merkel has empowered several women to be in ministerial positions. Always in her very neutral, pragmatic way lacking in vanity but not in determination.
Each in their own way will leave their mark in a male-dominated world of politics. But despite their gender, all three played the traditional game of the political system: Clinton was a highly conventional presidential candidate not having changed the narrative in a still very dominant political power house. Merkel is not doing politics as a woman, but she is a woman doing politics, trying to combine pragmatism and uprightness, what is best for her country and her values. Le Pen’s double discourse showed that the correlation between female politicians and improvement of women’s rights is far from obvious. Beyond their personal success, their fate will undoubtedly help empowering the next generation of French, American and German women.


Renate Schroeder - European Federation of Journalists, Director
Camille Petit – EFJ, Assistant Project Manager