Preliminary analysis report - March 2014

Gendering activism in populist radical right parties

A comparative study of women’s and men’s participation in the Northern League (Italy) and the National Front (France)

To quote this report:
Francesca Scrinzi, ‘Gendering activism in populist radical right parties. A comparative study of women’s and men’s participation in the Northern League (Italy) and the National Front (France). In-progress preliminary analysis report’, funded by ERC Starting grant, March 2014, project website.

Although considerable scholarship has focused on the populist radical right[1] (PRR) parties in Europe[2], very little is known about their gendered dimension. Yet gender emerges as an important indicator of the ideological profile of the European PRR[3]. Women constitute a minority of the voters, activists and politicians of these parties, which are characterised by an overtly sexist rhetoric championing traditional models of femininity and the ‘natural family’ as the fundamental base of the social order. Gender also plays a key role in the symbolic organisation of these parties: the defining characteristic of the radical right is its reliance on essentialist constructions of the Other to forge and reproduce hierarchical differences, variously based on gender, sexuality, culture, class or religion (Bacchetta and Power 2002).

The need for gendering our understanding of the populist radical right in Europe

Gender lies at the heart of the current developments of the PRR in Europe. In the context of rising hostility towards Muslims, the theme of gender equality is mobilised in instrumental ways by these parties, seeking to legitimise their claims and attract women’s votes; new female leaders are transforming the image of these parties, making them appear more acceptable and less stigmatised; in some countries the traditional gender gap among their voters is narrowing (Barisione and Mayer 2013). While the attempts made by these parties to modernise their public image are increasingly visible in the media, there is a fundamental lack of scholarship on their gendered strategies and the role of women in these organisations. Over the past few years, some research has started to address this gap (Avanza 2008, Mayer 2013, Mulinari and Neergaard 2014, Scrinzi forthcoming, Scrinzi under review).

To date, however, there remains a major lack of studies on the issue of gender and the PRR in Europe, more specifically as far as empirical data on activism are concerned. This is due to the ways in which the field of study has taken shape. Until recently, studies of PRR parties have mainly focused on issues of structure as opposed to agency and on external conditions – demand-side factors such as the structural context and how this shapes the electoral demand for such parties – as opposed to the dynamics which are internal to the political organisations. Recent studies have shown the important role played by party-centric factors[4]. Thus current research on the PRR has benefited from being articulated with the sociology of social movements and activism, which has increasingly adopted an interactionist approach. This has produced a shift both at the methodological level (from quantitative to qualitative) and at the level of analysis (from macro to micro)[5]. An ‘internalist’ perspective (Goodwin 2006) supported by a qualitative methodology may provide a more complete understanding of the PRR, by shedding light on the ways in which individual and collective identities are constructed through activism, on the members’ motivations, their strategies and agency (Blee 2007). Qualitative methodologies can also improve our knowledge of party strategies aimed at socialising and recruiting members, as well as of the complex relationship between the activists (micro-level) and the party (meso-level) (Sawicki and Siméant 2009). Cas Mudde (2007) points to the current need for research which focuses on the PRR parties themselves, by exploring supply-side factors such as ideology, leadership and organisation, including party membership. Indeed, party members, who providing the bulk of unpaid volunteer work especially during electoral campaigns, constitute a crucial internal resource for political parties. To date, only a minority of ethnographic studies exist which focus on activism in PRR parties (Klandermans and Mayer 2006, Bizeul 2003, Avanza 2008, Crépon 2012) and more generally in conservative right-wing movements, as sociologists have tended to focus on left-wing social movements (Bargel and Dechezelles 2009).

Within this literature, the role played by female activists in these ‘masculine’ parties has remained largely invisible. Generally, very few studies have investigated the role played by women activists in conservative, nationalist and anti-immigration social movements, as indicated in a recent review of the literature (Blee and Creasap 2010). Most scholarly accounts of these male-dominated movements in fact tend to dismiss women as apolitical members whose affiliation is channelled through men – husbands or fathers. Yet women are actively engaged in radical right and anti-immigration organisations across the world and may feel empowered ‘as women’ by their activism (Bacchetta and Power 2002). Over the past fifteen years feminist scholars have investigated how women tend to be mobilised as symbols of the nation by nationalist projects and organisations (Lutz, Phoenix and Yuval-Davis 1995), but they have tended to neglect the study of women as agents of racism and anti-immigration politics.

This paper presents some preliminary findings of a comparative ethnographic research[6] analysing how gender shapes activism in the National Front[7] (France) and the Northern League[8] (Italy) as well as the gendered ideology and strategies of these parties. As the political scientist Nonna Mayer (2013: 161) suggests with regard to the French National Front, these two parties can be analysed as a ‘magnifying glass of the far right’s evolution in Western Europe’ to apprehend current changes in the ideology, strategy, membership and electoral support of the PRR. The analysis of the full data is still in progress. Fieldwork involved collection of an important amount of data, on the basis of a triple methodological strategy[9]. Some data have been presented in two publications (Scrinzi forthcoming, Scrinzi under review). An extensive and systematic discussion of the full data will be the object of further research outputs which will include a final research report (to be published on the project website[10]), journal articles in English, French and Italian as well as a monographic book in English. Research outputs will be advertised or made available online on the project website.

Populist radical right parties in transition: the battle for respectability

Despite important differences between the NF and the NL – the first is a strong supporter of France as a nation state while the latter is an anti-Italian ethno-regionalist party – these parties share a number of relevant elements: these are related to their essentialist views on issues of immigration and gender. Over the 1990s, both the NL and the NF imposed the issue of ‘security’ and the association between immigration and crime on the national political agenda, and have focused on the idea of ‘national preference’ in access to the labour market and the welfare state. Northern Italians and French people are described as the victims of ‘massive immigration’ and of ‘anti-white racism’. Both parties combine their anti-immigration position with a strong anti-European Union stance, which led them, in January 2014, to sign an ‘iron pact’ and design a joint strategy in view of the upcoming European elections. Despite these commonalities, the two parties are currently in two very different situations. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, succeeded her father as leader of the NF in 2011. In the first round of the 2012 presidential elections, she won 17.9% of the vote[11], and the NF is credited with encouraging polls in view of the incoming 2014 municipal elections[12]. In 2012 the NL experienced a major loss of votes, following the corruption scandals which involved its charismatic leader Umberto Bossi and his entourage, and a new president, Roberto Maroni, was elected.

Both parties are experiencing a major transition and share a strategy of institutionalisation to enlarge their electoral support, to create a more respectable image and to create distance from the past. With the declared objective of transforming the NF into a large mainstream party with a vocation to govern, Marine Le Pen has engaged in an enterprise of ‘modernisation’ and ‘de-demonisation’ (dédiabolisation) of the party’s public image, attracting a great deal of attention in the media. The new ‘republican’ NF defines itself as a movement of patriots and calls for the unity of all French people irrespective of religious and ethnic differences. Marine Le Pen’s attempt to reframe the NF’s politics to make it compatible with republican values, and her pragmatic positions on abortion and gay rights, have produced discontent among Catholics and ‘historical’ party members (Dézé 2012). After the NL scandals, Roberto Maroni, who was leading the party at the time of the fieldwork, had to restore an image of reliability for the party vis-à-vis the activists and regain their confidence: ‘rinnovamento’ became the slogan of his attempt to convey the idea of a real renewal of the party. He also aimed at providing a more modern, institutional and mainstream party image, to attract a moderate electorate and to dissociate the NL from its image as a stigmatised radical party composed of backward people. This was done by investing in communication to create a Lega Nord 2.0 – the name of the new party website. Under Maroni, the political agenda of the party shifted to focus on the project of the Northern macro-region and emphasised the importance of local elections and governance while underplaying the relevance of national political elections and of being in government in Rome. In the case of the NL, the attempt to convey a sense of real change is mainly directed at an internal audience of activists and voters – bitterly disappointed by the corruption scandals – but also at potential new moderate voters. In the case of the NF, instead, the new communication style is mainly addressed to the public opinion and to new potential voters.

As it appeared from the analysis, the NF and the NL attempt to bring about this normalisation and to appeal to new electorates by mobilising the youth and women.

The gendered ‘modernisation’ of two ‘masculine’ parties

Both the NF and the NL use gender and mobilise women to convey the idea that there has been a real change in the party. The strategy of normalisation of the NF has been supported by the novelty of having a woman as leader of the party: dominant assumptions about women as naturally caring and less violent than men have softened the perception of a party which is traditionally stigmatised for its sulphurous statements and aggressive anti-immigration rhetoric. Marine Le Pen mobilises ideas of gender to convey a reassuring image of the NF, for instance by describing herself as a mother facing the difficulties of combining work and family responsibilities (Scrinzi under review). In her autobiography she describes herself as ‘almost a feminist’, recalling the period when, after her divorce, she struggled to combine her job and political role with caring for her children (Le Pen 2006: 188).

To support the idea that Maroni’s leadership embodies a political renewal, he and his followers explicitly speak about ‘celodurismo’, Bossi’s overtly sexist discourse and slogan, as something that is offensive, despicable and politically futile. For instance, supporters of Maroni criticised the racist attacks made on the Italian Minister Cécile Kyenge by one of Bossi’s supporters, calling them ‘scorie celoduriste’ (sexist scum); Bossi’s followers reacted by accusing one of them, Flavio Tosi, Verona’s mayor, of homosexuality. Maroni’s followers also speak about the ethno-regional folklore which played a crucial role in the NL ideology under the leadership of Bossi as something that should be dismissed, by contrasting the ritual of collecting water from the river Po, traditionally performed by Bossi, with Maroni’s pragmatic style and concrete attitude to politics. At the time of the attacks against Minister Kyenge, Maroni, in his quality as Lombardy’s governor, attended a meeting to discuss the building of a mosque in Milan, one of the main topics which the NL has traditionally campaigned against. The discourse of the NL was updated to correct the misogynist image of the party also in the matter of equal opportunities. The party department dealing with family issues was renamed ‘Family policies and equal opportunities’ (Politiche per la Famiglia e Pari Opportunità), and the enterprise of rinnovamento included giving visibility to women members. In the run-up of the regional elections which led to Maroni’s appointment as governor of the Lombardy region, he declared that half of his regional council would be constituted by women - a promise that he fulfilled.

The generational dimension of the modernisation of the populist radical right

The updating of the image and discourse of the NF and NL has also an important generational dimension. In both cases, the transition is led by a younger generation of politicians; ideological change is intertwined with the advent of younger cohorts of activists and representatives; this has discontented ‘older’[13] generations of party members, leading to internal conflicts. The ‘republicanisation’ of the NF aims at gaining the consensus of the younger generations of French voters. Indeed, youth is central to the strategy of normalising the public image of the party. Youth is especially foregrounded in the current context of the campaign for the March 2014 municipal elections: the NF describes itself as the first party among young voters and has nominated various young members at the top position in electoral lists (tête de liste), who are regularly covered by the media.

Two different attitudes in bringing about the ‘new’ party and in the relationship to the ‘old’ political leadership can be observed. NF representatives carefully avoid discussing the ideological differences between the old and the new leader; activists and candidates are encouraged not to dwell on Jean-Marie Le Pen’s sulphurous declarations on the Second World War. Marine Le Pen has benefited from her personal ties with the former leader to obtain the leadership and the former leader maintains a certain degree of power in the party. It is argued that, while the former leader still holds this role, the transformation of the NF which is desired by younger generations of party representatives will not be completed (Dézé 2012). As a result, while Marine Le Pen has produced an important shift in the party’s discourse and ideology, explicit criticism of the past is not allowed. In contrast, the NL is the theatre of an overt conflict between different fractions supporting either the former leader Bossi or Maroni (Matteo Salvini, a follower of Maroni, took over from him as president of the party in 2013). The rinnovamento is explicitly presented by his promoters as a battle between the old times and the new NL. While they tend to share positive feelings of sympathy and respect regarding the founder of the party, many young NL activists express their preference for a more modern and respectable NL as embodied by Roberto Maroni, as opposed to the ‘backward’ yet legendary Umberto Bossi. However it should be noted that support among the younger generations of NL activists for one or the other leader is differentiated according to regional specificities. The section below describes how the research explored the articulation between generational as well as regional differences on the one hand and, on the other, the ideological diversity existing within the parties.

Generational, ethnic and regional diversity and ideological change in the NF and the NL

In the NF and the NL, social divisions shape the internal party dynamics and are articulated with ideological change. These divisions are related to gender, age, class, ethnicity, but depend also on regional political traditions and the existence of diverse local constituencies for the two parties. For instance, it appears that NL activists based in Milan tend to have more progressive positions than those based in the province. Matteo Salvini (a reference for younger generations of activists as he rose up the ranks starting as an activist in the NL youth organisation the MGP – Movimento Giovani Padani) made declarations in which where he expressed a position of tolerance for same sex unions – although he said he was against adoptions by gay couples[14]. This reflected the position held by several local activists, especially the young ones, but discontented others. A debate followed on the social networks which set the Veneto MGP in opposition to the Lombardy MGP. This reflects the importance of conservative positions vis-à-vis issues of family and sexuality which characterises the NL in Veneto: in this region, which has a Catholic subculture (Cento Bull and Gilbert 2001), the NL has established links with traditionalist Catholics and with far right organisations (Franzina 2009).

Something similar can be observed in the NF. Young migrant and racialised party members have been attracted to the party by its new leadership and ‘republican’ discourse; they tend to distance themselves from the party’s politics under Jean-Marie Le Pen. Their personal conviction that the NF is dissociated from racism corresponds with what they consider to be a new course in the party’s politics, initiated by Marine Le Pen. Migrant and racialised informants tend instead to attribute racism to the ‘old’ generation of NF members, which they consider to be losing ground. The data shed light on the (albeit scarce) presence of a new generation of activists of ethnic minority and migrant background, drawn to the party by its new republican propaganda. This new cohort of party members contributes to the ideological renewal and diversity in the party. At this level, the data suggest that the strategy of normalisation of the NF is proving successful.

The racialisation of sexism

Gender equality appears as an important resource which is used by these parties to establish their legitimacy in the political arena. The NF and the NL aim at conveying a modern image by associating themselves with gender equality and ‘sexual modernity’ (Fassin 2006) while discrediting their political opponents on the same ground. NL and NF activists tend to attribute sexism to the other parties; most of them deny that gender inequalities exist within their own organisation, which they define as meritocratic. One way of devaluing the legitimacy of political competitors is to say that ‘their’ women (especially female politicians in mainstream right-wing parties) are subaltern or that they are traitors of the ‘feminist’ cause (in this view, left-wing women and feminists are not truly ‘feminists’ because of their soft approach to immigration, which constitutes a threat to women’s rights).

The same mechanism serves the stigmatisation of the racialised Other. Dominant models of gender are identified with the activists’ national/ethnic community while pre-modern models of gender are ascribed to the racialised Other (migrants, and more specifically those coming from Muslim countries). The ‘racialisation of sexism’ or ‘genderisation of racism’ (Farris and Scrinzi 2013) relies on the representation of immigration as a threat to the rights of the women belonging to the dominant national/ethnic community. It should be noted that this mobilisation of the theme of gender equality to support the anti-immigration agenda is not specific to parties of the PRR but is diffused beyond them, affecting mainstream right-wing parties (Cette France là 2009). Thus the anti-immigration agenda is directly associated with the ‘competition to act ‘for women’’ (Celis and Childs 2011) which characterises the conflict among political forces in different national contexts.

Both the NF and the NL mobilise this strategy. Among the first initiatives of the Gruppo Politico Femminile (GPF – Feminine Political Group) of the NL were a petition in favour of harsher sentences for those committing sexual violence, a law proposal on the chemical castration of paedophiles, a law proposal aiming to regulate prostitution and a law proposal to make the burqa illegal. The Feminine Political Group is currently working also on the issue of women’s work (home-work and work sharing) and work-family reconciliation (through the proposal to extend public office opening times). This emphasis on issues related to women and violence against women is linked to the association which is traditionally established between immigration and crime within the NL’s anti-immigration discourse. The new focus on women’s rights also corresponds to the recent radicalisation of the anti-immigration discourse of the NL. In this discourse, immigration, and more specifically immigration from Muslim countries, is portrayed as a threat not only to the physical integrity of Italian women but also to their rights. This is also reflected by the analysis of documentary sources: the issue of the burqa and acts of violence against women in migrants’ families have received increasing coverage in the party’s official newspaper La Padania over the last few years.

In a similar vein, in 2013 the FNJ (Front National de la Jeunesse), the youth organisation of the NF, organised a campaign called Filles de France (Daughters of France). This initiative claims that the ‘first right of women’ is freedom from insecurity and sexual violence. The campaign is set against a context characterised by the mediatisation of acts of sexual violence committed in the suburbs inhabited by working class racialised French and migrants (banlieues) and by the hyper-visibility of the figure of racialised young men of the suburbs, who tend to be depicted as potential rapists (Guénif and Macé 2006). Further, the NF political programme Notre projet[15] (2013) reflects the traditional party ideology in that it does not include any section specifically concerned with women’s issues. Instead these are referred to in the section on the family. Under the heading ‘Laicité et égalité’ (secularism and equality), the party states its intention to operate against ‘racist and sexist attitudes and discriminations’. However, the issue of sexism is only addressed once in the programme, in association with ‘ethnic sectarianism’ (communautarisme) ascribed to Muslims: an implicit reference is made to the idea of banning the possibility of separating boys and girls in public schools and swimming pools.

Recent scholarship has examined the ‘republican turn’ in the NF ideology as well as its political programme to conclude that the ‘second NF’ (Wieviorka 2012) is in strong continuity with the NF under Jean-Marie Le Pen. The inclusion of new ideological elements, such as its ‘republicanisation’ and the mobilisation of the theme of gender equality, does not seem to invalidate the analyses which associate the NF discourse with the naturalisation of social relations of gender and ethnicity (Scrinzi under review). The NF ‘republican’ discourse on secularism has been considered merely as a lexical innovation which retains an exclusionary dimension to stigmatise migrants and Muslims (Dézé 2012). Indeed, secularism – which is identified with the limitation of religion and ethnic specificities to the private sphere – is seen by the NF as an inherently Christian value (Crépon 2012). The ‘republicanisation’ of the NF ideology thus coexists with the mobilisation of Christianity as a symbol of the French nation, with secularism described as a feature par excellence of the French culture and as a legacy of Christianity as opposed to the ethnic and religious Other.

Reproducing dominant masculinities

The data indicate that the political culture of the NF and the NL remains highly gendered in the traditional way. Activism is constructed as a masculine military-like activity; the fact that in most cases women are excluded from bill-posting in the NF is explained on the basis of its potentially dangerous but also ‘physical’ nature. Activism is also described as a totalising activity because of the constant attacks that party members have to endure qua members of a stigmatised organisation. Activism and sociability among party members allow men to identify with hegemonic models of masculinity. Boys are socialised according to dominant models of masculinity and attributes such as heterosexuality, physical strength, rationality and the display of aggressiveness vis-à-vis the racialised Other. The political irrationality which is attributed to the racialised Other is sometimes associated with the latter’s despicable disregard for women’s rights.

Thus these parties combine, in contradictory ways, a rhetoric championing traditional models of gender and the family with a discourse on the promotion of women’s rights, where immigration is associated with sexual violence and conservatism in the matter of gender relations. This ambivalence is typical of the PRR and is supposed to address different audiences, appealing to different electorates. It the case of the NF, the strategy of dédiabolisation may function on the basis of diverse expectations and constituencies at local level, corresponding to a specialisation of different party leaders (such as between Marine Le Pen in the North of France and  Marion Marechal Le Pen in Southern France on the issue of gay marriage).

Producing collective identities within the activists’ group: the role of emotions

One of the main findings of ethnographic studies of the PRR and other nationalist and anti-immigration organisations is that people come to hold racist beliefs as a result of their political involvement: the ‘internalist’ perspective (Goodwin 2006) and a qualitative approach show that racist self-interests are socially constructed through the activists’ practices within the organisation itself, rather than being pre-existing causes for affiliation (Blee 2007). The role played by emotions in social movements is central to construct and strengthen collective identities: nationalist and anti-immigration organisations may manipulate their members’ emotions by training them to fear the outside world and create an enemy (Blee 2002).

The data show that anti-immigration beliefs and feelings are reproduced through collective actions such as flyering and bill-posting, meetings and demonstrations as well as informal social events. Party gatherings serve to reassert internal national/ethnic as well as political solidarity and a sense of belonging. Activists experience these as joyful events involving positive emotions, a good deal of laughter, socialisation, eating and drinking together. They cherish the memory of these events, recalling them with pleasure when they are together or in the interviews. For example, activists at the annual NL’s gathering in Pontida experience solidarity and selfless behaviour as well as a sense of unity among members coming from different parts of the mythic nation Padania, as everybody offers something to eat which is typical of their region. Activists tend to speak about their party as a large family, a warm protective environment which is regulated by the value of solidarity, where everyone can find a place regardless of his or her class, gender, religion, ethnicity or age.

This is in stark contrast with the fact that, in the interviews, activists often express negative emotions, mostly fear (of crime, of migrants, of social downgrading, of economic insecurity). When they are together, they share their own experiences or anecdotes concerning thefts and aggressions in the public space. This reflects the agenda and rhetoric of both parties, where insecurity, associated with immigration, is a key theme. Indeed, in party meetings and other gatherings an important amount of time is devoted to ‘identity-talk’ (Hunt and Benford 1994) in which the activists exchange ‘anti-immigration gossip’ stigmatising the racialised Other, or criticise their political opponents. For example, they share the news of a law supposedly passed in the Netherlands which supposedly endorses the Muslim Sharia; the story of a migrant man who has built a fortune by begging in the street; or their personal experiences of being stigmatised, for instance by friends or at the workplace, because of their political engagement at the NF/NL. Such ‘identity talk’ exchanged among the activists mainly focuses on stories of aggression and robbery (often by migrants), to reproduce a sense of insecurity; on anecdotes depicting migrants as lazy, mischievous and dangerous, to reproduce anti-immigration feelings; and on the activists’ experiences of stigmatisation by the outsiders, to reaffirm a sense of belonging to the party as well as internal solidarity. Indeed, the experience or the perception of stigmatisation – which is directly linked to the PRR anti-immigration agenda and discourse – is a key element in the experiences of PRR activists (Klandermans and Mayer 2006). It is precisely because of this perceived or real stigmatisation that NF and NL party members associate joining the party with a feeling of relief at being accepted, the possibility of expressing their anti-immigration views without being sanctioned, the emotional support of fellow party members who share their ideas, and the comfort of a welcoming group of friends to counter the dominant perception of PRR activists as evil people.

‘Populist radical right feminists’?

Recent literature on the issue of the descriptive and substantive representation of women has argued that despite a wide-spread expectation that women will defend women’s rights better than male politicians, this is not necessarily the case (Celis and Childs 2011). Thus descriptive representation does not correspond automatically to substantive representation: female politicians are not a guarantee that women’s rights will be better defended. Further literature on ‘right wing feminism’ suggests that the substantive representation of women is not a monopoly of left-wing women (Murray and Sénac forthcoming). Female elected representatives of right-wing parties can be committed to promoting women’s rights and advocate ‘feminist’ positions while at the same time experiencing conflicts between their party positions and their own ‘feminist’ agenda.

My data indicate that NF/NL female activists express discontent with the fact that political actions in favour of women are generally assumed to be left-wing: these activists question the left-wing ‘monopoly’ on feminism. This is due also to their experience that actions in favour of women tend to be stigmatised in their own party, precisely because they are associated with left-wing political opponents of the NF/NL. This is especially the case for women who are candidates or hold institutional positions, as they are confronted with left-wing candidates and colleagues and feel the need to establish their legitimacy as female politicians representing women. NL women describe themselves as ‘masculine women’ endowed with qualities which are traditionally constructed as male attributes: they consider themselves as aggressive, uncompromising and rational. This can be seen as a strategy to legitimate themselves in a male-dominated party (Scrinzi forthcoming).

The gendered division of work and women’s political participation

The political participation of NF/NL female activists is often contingent upon their domestic responsibilities, both in terms of childcare, elderly care and cleaning/cooking. Several informants said that they got actively engaged in the party only after their children had grown up, or that they had to disengage for a time while they were caring for their elderly relatives, or for their children. One female informant said she regretted not having had the opportunity to have children and that she would have not become an activist if she had been a mother. Child birth constitutes a break in some female activists’ careers, unlike for male activists. However some of the younger informants say that they would choose political activism over having a family and see the two things as incompatible. The demand for unpaid care work for elderly relatives especially affects NL female activists, as Italy stands as one of the poorest countries in Europe in terms of welfare state provision while having a very large elderly population. In Italy elderly care, traditionally assigned to women in the family as unpaid carers, is largely externalised by families and carried out by female migrant domestic workers: this produces a contradiction between the position which female activists hold in the gendered division of work on the one hand, and the anti-immigration agenda of the party to which they belong on the other (Farris and Scrinzi 2013, Scrinzi 2012).

Very rarely male informants reported having experienced similar difficulties in combining activism with care and domestic work. However, some men expressed discomfort in combining their political engagement with their private life, and said they did not have enough time to spend with their families or partners. One male informant gave up some of his political roles and refused an invitation to run for the Senate because he got married and wanted to have his honeymoon; however this happened when he was about 50 years old, having already had  what he considered to be rewarding political career and which included being elected as an MP.

Sometimes the informants engaged in politics as members of a family. Indeed, the family plays an important role in the political socialisation of PRR activists. Bert Klandermans and Nonna Mayer (2006) found that the parents of PRR activists were often supporters of the same or similar parties. The data show that for an older generation of middle-class women activists, political engagement in the NL is carried out together with their husbands, as both wife and husband are party members; their professional activity functions in the same way, with the wife ‘helping out’ her husband, who is the head of the family business. Also, political participation relies on the family’s professional social networks. There is a complete intertwining of the family and professional and political activity. Working-class households see activism as a family strategy to cope with economic hardship, as in the case of one couple with three children: both the husband and wife are NF party members[16]. The wife gave up her job to care for the children; as an unemployed parent, she receives State allowances, which constitute a higher income for the family than her salary. She is a full time mother and she is very active in the local parents’ association. While he is a candidate at one of the top positions in the list, she has agreed to be a candidate because the party needs to comply with the parity law, but is not interested in being elected. She is more active than him in the party and takes on most of the work involved in the electoral campaign, while he is often away for his job as a truck driver. In supporting his candidacy, she will be able to mobilise her networks in the village because of all the people she gets to know as a member of the parents’ association. In addition to becoming city councillor, he hopes that a position might become available for him in transport if the NF wins the elections, and says that perhaps there will be a job opportunity also for his wife.

 15th March 2014


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[1] According to Cas Mudde (2007), these are defined by their nativist, populist and authoritarian ideology. However there is no consensus among scholars on the definition of this family of parties and several different categories are used (PRR, far right, radical right, right-wing extremism, etc.).

[2] See Rydgren (2007) for a review of the literature.

[3] See the papers presented at the international conference ‘Gender and Far Right Politics in Europe’, Georg-Simon-Ohm-University of Applied Sciences Nürnberg, Germany, 2012, whose publication is currently under review (Aldershot: Ashgate).

[4] See Goodwin (2006) and Rydgren (2007) for a review of this literature.

[5] Within this context, since the 1990s scholars have investigated gender as a central explanatory factor in the emergence and crisis of social movements, but also how involvement in activism to the reproduction and transformation of gender relations both in the social movement and in the wider society (Fillieule 2009, Kergoat et alii 1992, Taylor 1999).

[6] ERC – European Research Council, Starting Grant, ‘Gendering activism in populist radical right parties. A comparative study of women’s and men’s participation in the Northern League (Italy) and the National Front (France)’ (2012-2014)

[7] Hereafter NF.

[8] Hereafter NL.

[9] Fieldwork was conducted between 2013 and 2014. First, biographical interviews were collected with female and male activists of the Northern league (NL) and of the National Front (NF). Semi-structured interviews were collected with representatives of both parties who act as presidents of satellite civil society associations, and the youth organisations or those who are responsible for dealing with issues concerning women, social policies, the family, etc. Second, observations were conducted at public gatherings and demonstrations of the two parties and, on a regular basis, at the meetings of the women’s association of the NL, of one NL party section in Milan, of the NF youth organisation in Paris and at actions such as leaflet distributions. Notes were written during the observations or immediately after that. Third, documentary sources were examined at the NL archive in Milan (party publications, brochures, books by the party leaders, leaflets etc.), and at the Sciences Po library as well as at the documentation centre of the research centre Cevipof (Centre de recherches politiques), Sciences Po, in Paris (brochures, leaflets, political programmes, books by the party leaders).


[11] Although, as Michel Wieviorka (2012) has noted, today’s scores are not vastly higher than those the party secured at its peak under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen.


[13] ‘Old’ should not necessarily be understood as indicating the biographical age of these activists.



[16] The NF provides man and wife with the opportunity of joining as a couple at a lower cost.