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The Look of the French Election

Last updated: 05-27-2019

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The Look of the French Election

By Vanessa Friedman On Wednesday, when the far-right presidential candidate of France Marine Le Pen took the stage in the circular television studio in La Plaine Saint-Denis north of Paris for a potentially decisive debate against her centrist rival, Emmanuel Macron, she did so in a neat navy jacket, collarless V-neck white blouse, pegged trousers and spiky heels. Her makeup was soft, her signature blond flip gently curled at the edges. The classic C-suite palette telegraphed a pulled-together professionalism (she almost matched with Mr. Macron), the shoes suggested an unapologetic femininity and the hair added a motherly halo. For the country glued to the TV, it made for a strategic statement, even before she said a word. And it underscored the point made by Samir Hammal, a professor of constitutional law at Sciences Po (the Paris Institute of Political Studies), who said that while “our male presidents have traditionally cast themselves as the fathers of the nation, she has cast herself as the mother.” To this end, she has been a master at dressing the part. After all, one of the things the 48-year-old lawyer and mother understood from the very beginning of her political career was just how large a role her own style could play in reshaping perception, not just of herself and her family, but of their party itself. Whatever you think of her politics, and the broader implications of her rise and that of the far right in Europe, that she has gotten so far means it is important to consider the way she has gone about normalizing what was once dismissed as fringe. In this, clothes have played a central role. Just because they did so in a country where dress is not deemed an unseemly consideration for serious people, and self-expression through fashion is practically a sacrament, does not make her tactical use of her wardrobe any less resonant for us all. Since 2011, when Ms. Le Pen took over the party her father built and moved it away from its anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic roots to make it a palpable, if uncomfortable, force in French politics, she has been deft about using her own image as a tool in separating herself from the French elites, and about making her formerly toxic party look … well, like everybody else. Literally. She has transformed herself, as Mr. Hammal said, from the extremist next door to the “woman next door.” “All past leaders, from Louis XIV to Napoleon, have used costume to create legitimacy for their power,” Mr. Hammal said. “But Marine Le Pen is one of the best.” She realized early on, he said, that dress could be a tool to help legitimize her party. And that as a woman, with all the greater wardrobe choice and freedom that suggests, she was the ideal person to wield it. It began with a haircut. In 2007, when Ms. Le Pen became the director of strategy for her father’s presidential campaign, she lopped off her Farrah Fawcett locks and adopted her shoulder-grazing flip, going from seductive to Doris Day with a touch of the curling iron. Like Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel, she adopted a uniform of basic pantsuits, though she alternates them with straight, above-the-knee skirts to emphasize her femininity (see her much-discussed campaign poster with its flash of thigh) and the occasional jeans and trench coat. The message was generic female executive with a patriotic color palette: red, blue and white, the tones of the tricolor, set off against black and white. She has made something of a signature out of being unbranded, abandoning her Dior sunglasses along with the couture trappings of the patrimony that have long been embraced by the French female political establishment. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and a former finance minister, for example, is known for her Chanel jackets and Hermès bags. Rachida Dati, a former justice minister in Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet, was shown in a Dior dress on the cover of Paris Match. And Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a former mayoral candidate in Paris, wore Dior when she attended the Céline show during her campaign. (She lost, which may have been a signal that things were changing.) Even Brigitte Macron, the wife of Mr. Macron, recently came under fire for borrowing clothes from Louis Vuitton, a practice she began when her husband was finance minister. By contrast, Ms. Le Pen went so far as to rent a caped, halter-neck blue gown (designer: who knows?) to wear to the Time 100 gala in 2015. Though there was some head-scratching about the choice, the message was meant to resonate with her base at home, not her fellow partygoers. Indeed, she has been adept at adopting her clothes to her constituencies: wearing a bright red jacket, navy shirt and pumps at a party rally; wrinkled black trousers and a zip-up jacket on the streets of Amiens while talking to striking factory workers. Mr. Hammal calls this “mirroring,” and for a politician running on a populist ticket, claiming to feel the pain of marginalized working men and women, it has been indubitably effective. “If you listened to the same speech coming out of the mouth of a man, it would not have the same effect,” he said. “But because of how she looks when she says it, how maternal she seems, it’s much easier to hear.” After all, in the encyclopedia of political tactics, makeover comes just after Machiavelli. Or, perhaps it should from now on. By Guy Trebay He is the teacher’s pet, or chouchou, who once dressed like the big kid who literally married his high school instructor. He is an economics geek with a degree in philosophy who headed a government finance ministry while clad in the strictly-tailored power suits favored by members of the Grandes Écoles elite. He is athletic and mediagenic, a Kennedy-style maverick, a candidate for the digital age and also one whose pretty-boy looks helped propel him onto GQ France’s best-dressed list just as his pragmatic and business-friendly rhetoric carried him to the head of a field of seasoned politicians in the French elections. He is Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate who faces off this week in the second and final round of voting for the presidency against his rival, the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. As a 39-year-old political novice, Mr. Macron has repeatedly demonstrated that a lack of experience running for public office is no deterrent to an ability to manipulate image and shift shape on a dime. His clothes have been one of the many platforms he has used to convey his message to the divided population. “His style and self-presentation reek of health, vigor and physical prowess,” Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, a senior research fellow at the London School of Fashion and an expert on fashion semiotics, said in an email. “The sharp suits make him look disciplined, but also energetic,” Ms. Cronberg added, and they offer a defining visual contrast with the rumpled and often fumbling appearance of the departing president, the Socialist François Hollande. Superficially, Mr. Macron’s sober two-button suits are all but indistinguishable from those favored by most high-level French businessmen and politicians. Yet they have been modified and altered repeatedly as his poll numbers shifted and he sought to look more — although never too baldly — presidential. In other words, when the dapper tailored suits the candidate wore in both his ministry days and at the start of his campaign — invariably with a sky-blue shirt and Windsor-knotted, solid-color four-in-hand tie — first drew attention for their obvious price tags, he promptly ditched them. “No ordinary person wears suits that cost 1,000 euros,” Mr. Macron’s right-hand aide, Ismaël Emelien, said. “That’s too expensive.” When his natty midnight-blue suits began attracting the perhaps unwanted attention of the French fashion news media, the candidate immediately lowered his sartorial profile and his expenses. Soon he was spotted dressed as a midprice version of his former self, clad in clothes made for him by Jean-Claude and Laurent Toubol, whose small tailoring shop in the Paris garment district has become a default outfitter of French tyro politicians, from Guillaume Larrivé, 40, a member of the French National Assembly, to Patrice Bessac, 39, the Communist mayor of Montreuil. Other youthful politicians have faced the challenge Mr. Macron now does: to balance an image representative of the entrepreneurial France he imagines driving into a digital future and a hidebound traditional one. The open-neck shirts of Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, were an image fail. So, too, would a vision of Mr. Macron be in the hoodies and jeans favored by the tech wizards he sees as vital to a French economic future stoked by start-ups like the ride-sharing app BlaBlaCar or the niche internet retailer Vente-privee. Still, that he elects to wear suits in almost every setting, outside the ski slopes, is both strategic and a necessity, Ms. Cronberg said. “Those perennial dark suits,” she explained, continue to serve an important function, despite the widespread abandonment of the suit by the wider fashion world. “They speak of respectability and tradition and of how powerful men control others by controlling themselves.”

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