Hungary’s First Female President – a Victory for Women?

Katalin Novák, 44, is Hungary’s very first female President and youngest-ever head of state, elected in March 2022 and inaugurated in May 2022 following Prime Minister Orbán’s  third consecutive landslide victory. The mother of three is a Calvinist, a staunch defender of Hungary's traditional family values, and a loyal ally of the Prime Minister. One of her main goals is to reverse the trend in the Hungarian birth rate of dramatic decline since the 1980s. In Hungary, being the President (who may serve two five-year terms) is mainly a figurehead role. Novák’s sugar-coated eloquence, international experience, and multilingual skills contribute to making Fidesz internationally presentable. Whether her election is a victory for Hungarian women is questionable, though.

Katalin Novák in 2017

Novák, whose official CV is available here, formerly served as Hungary's Minister for Families and as Vice-Chair of Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Alliance. Fluent in French, English, German and speaking Spanish at a conversational level, Novák went to high school in Los Angeles, California, followed by a scholarship in Paris, France at the age of 18 with the conservative Pont Neuf Foundation. The objectives of the latter seem to be in line with the politics that Novák stands for: “to contribute to the renewal of the doctrinal corpus of the right by confronting conservative doctrine with contemporary problems, and at the same time to help bring out new perspectives and conservative solutions to the major problems of the moment.”

She obtained a degree in economics in Budapest and studied law in Szeged, followed by studies at the prestigious Parisian elite university Sciences-Po and at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA). The latter is renowned for having several French presidents among its alumni, such as Emmanuel Macron, who studied there from 2002-2004. Novák, like Macron, was born in 1977 and   attended an EU training programme at the Paris campus of that same “grande école” between 2002 and 2003. In 2019, under the Macron Government, she was decorated with the French Legion of Honour for her efforts in promoting the French-speaking community.

Right-wing affiliations

Given some of Novák’s affiliations, that award was frowned upon by critics. At the end of September 2021, she was closely involved with the  Budapest visit of Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, the two far-right candidates in the French presidential elections. Zemmour, an advocate of the ‘great replacement theory’, known for his polarising attacks on Muslims and immigrants, and former French National Front leader Marion Maréchal, Le Pen’s niece, were also invited as speakers to the fourth Budapest Demographic Summit. The goal of the latter, as specified by the summit’s website, is to promote a Hungarian “increase in fertility”, a growing “number of marriages”, and a decrease in “the number of divorces and abortions” as “a feasible alternative to the pro-migration approach” of “the Western world”, where allegedly “there are not enough children born (and) society is aging, which portends the disappearance of nations in the long term.”

Under the slogan of family protection, Novák has been on the same platform with other far-right politicians such as the Italian League’s leader Matteo Salvini who, according to the Italian weekly Internazionale, hugged her at the World Congress of Families in Verona at the end of March 2019. The American civil rights organisation Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) lists the World Congress of Families (WCF) as an anti-LGBT hate group.

A strict view of family

The SPLC describes the WCF as follows: “Closely tied to this ideology is an adherence to strict binary gender roles, in which men serve as the heads of households and women as their helpmates and the bearer of children. Only this type of family, (…), can quell the ‘demographic winter,’ the idea that European populations, especially, are in decline because of homosexuality, abortion, feminism, women in the workplace, and a variety of other things that deviate from the ‘natural’ family.”

As Dorit Geva, Professor of Sociology and Social Anthropology and founding Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Central European University formulated in an article in International Affairs last September, such figures “are seeking to establish what we call a new globalist illiberal order”, extending “elements of the globalist project while reclaiming a radicalized view of Christian democracy. Europe's far-right views the global order as composed of strong nations who need to defend their sovereignty on ‘cultural’ issues while protecting their common Christian roots.”

Traditional gender roles

In an infamous video posted on Facebook in December 2020, a sweetly smiling Novák wearing a blue pullover in a virtual kitchen affirms that she loves baking and then develops the argument for a rather retrograde view of women’s role in society. Discussing how a woman can be successful, she encourages women not to “misinterpret” the fight for emancipation, not to believe they have to constantly compete with men, and not to believe they should work in at least the same positions for at least the same pay as men: “Don’t believe a woman cannot be fulfilled as a mother of many by being ‘just’ a homemaker.”

However, on an other occasion Novák defended the former leader of the Momentum opposition party, András Fekete-Győr, who was mocked by an influencer with close ties to Fidesz for using a baby carrier to keep his new born child close to his own body . She posted a photo of her own husband carrying their son this way and commented: “I agree: Physical and emotional closeness is very important for the baby as well as for the father and mother. That is what our family policy is all about: Parents should be free to decide how to divide the tasks between them.”

Baking and cleaning windows

Novák has successfully combined building a career with having children and has built an image of herself as a classic housewife who does her own housework, even as a minister. She was severely criticised by opposition politician Tímea Szabó (Dialogue for Hungary) for posting what Szabó considered to be a staged photo just one day before Christmas Eve, smilingly cleaning her window with a little white tissue, wearing an expensive ski jacket while supposedly listening to Hungarian pop singer Péter Máté, with a caption that read: “Home at last! At this time of year it's nice to clean up the house before Christmas. Window cleaning is a must.”

Around 2010, as her blog from back then testifies, Novák lived in Germany as a homemaker while her husband worked at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. Following her election as the Hungarian President this year, she was castigated for those blog entries (now only available through the Wayback Machine) and labelled as being out of touch with Hungarian reality. One was related to her enthusiasm about the “Spatzennest” Kindergarten, which operates smoothly, unlike Hungarian childcare institutions, which struggle with low wages and lack of personnel.

Back then Novák wrote: "Attitude - but also appreciation, material and moral recognition - can be the reason for differences in the behaviour of kindergarten teachers. I have yet to enter a classroom where the kindergarten teacher is not playing with the children, drawing, playing music or talking to them, nor have I seen teachers smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, or sitting at a desk bored, tired and with a weary face." In 2022, after 12 years of the Fidesz Government, the situation at Hungarian schools and in child care still hasn’t improved, which has led to nationwide teachers’ protests.

Families first, migrants later

Intransigent about the ideology she stands for, Novák has defended Orbán’s patriotic, anti-migrant politics on several occasions. In an interview with France 24’s Ici l’Europe at the end of 2018, as Cabinet Chair for Demographic and Family Affairs, she claimed in fluent French that the American-Hungarian billionaire “George Soros is not a philanthropist. His activity is very controversial, he is a millionaire who tries to influence the political system in several European countries and to promote immigration. This is not what the Hungarian people want."

On 14 March 2019, Novák - who received accolades from prominent Trump administration members for Hungary’s “family first” policy aimed at helping traditional families and boosting birth rates - attended “Make Families Great Again”, a conference hosted by the Embassy of Hungary at the Library of Congress in Washington. In a related interview on the EWTN Global Catholic Television Network, she underlined the importance of sticking to Hungary’s “Judeo-Christian heritage”, “Christian values” and “anti-migration policy”: “We see our future in our children, so that means that we would like to empower young Hungarians to be able to have as many children as they wish to.”

Around that same time, members of the European Parliament accused Hungary of undermining human rights and democratic values following a controversial poster campaign that depicted European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as a supporter of mass immigration into Europe and a puppet manipulated by George Soros. This finally led to a vote by the European People’s Party to suspend Fidesz’s membership from its coalition in March 2019. Asked for a comment on this by the EWTN host, Novák responded: “For us, (…) mass migration is not an answer to this demographic crisis. In fact, that's not what most of the European states or political leaders do think and that is (…) the reason why we are so harshly attacked.”

The image of women

The image of women transmitted by Novák and the Government is crystallised in the report Hungary submitted in December 2020 to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) at the United Nations, according to Hungarian Gender Studies Professor Andrea Pető, who analysed it in an interview with Radio Free Europe: “The document as a whole just speaks of women as family members who must keep families together.” Professor Pető also referred to the EU Directive on Work-Life Balance issued in 2019, which was rejected by the Hungarian Government as an unacceptable intervention by the European Union into Hungary’s family policy: “The real reason behind this [rejection] is that EU funds, as well as taxpayer money, would have been spent to structurally redress this inequality. (…)  It is this unpaid, caregiving work, referenced by the code term 'private life' in EU directives, that determines the position of women. It means that women spend significantly more time looking after children and elderly parents, doing homework with children, cooking for them, taking them out. They're the ones who are caregiving, who are trying to make up for the shortcomings of the collapsing [Hungarian] health care system.”

In her inaugural speech, Novák condemned the war in Ukraine as Putin’s aggression and underlined that Hungary as an EU and NATO member is not neutral and stands with the victims and on the side of truth. As part of emphasizing her patriotism, she told the nation that she will be working to make sure the rest of the world not only understands Hungary, but appreciates its uniqueness.


Proofreading by Gwendolyn Albert