by Anne-christine d’Adesky
For months now, America has been transfixed by the political spectacle of the once-unthinkable GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, who’s risen quickly in the polls as a charismatic right-wing populist leader with an outrageous brand of bully politics. Across the Atlantic, French voters are also eyeing the growing popularity of Marine Le Pen, 47, the blonde, blue-eyed telegenic head of the far-right xenophobic National Front party. She took the reins of power a few years ago from her notorious father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, an avowed racist, misogynist, and Holocaust denier. Like The Donald, she’s confounded political pundits to capture a growing slice of the French vote—including a surprisingly large chunk of the LGBT community.
In the wake of the recent Paris terrorist bombings—France’s 9/11 moment—Le Pen’s seal-the-borders, anti-Islamic rhetoric has struck a fresh chord among disaffected voters, including many white, Catholic, and working-class citizens, as well as a large swath of the youth. To the shock of progressives, LGBT conservatives are jumping aboard too. In a recent IFOP survey of French voters, 26% of homosexuals in Paris supported the National Front, compared with 16% of heterosexuals.
That may not be accidental. Since taking the party reins in 2011, Le Pen has surrounded herself with openly gay (and closeted) senior party officials, many of who rank among her closest advisors. Up to 60% of senior National Front officials she’s hired or promoted in that time are gay, according to media reports. Today, Le Pen’s right-hand man (her No. 2) is Vice-President Florian Philippot, who’s in charge of communication and strategy for the National Front. He’s credited for the party’s makeover—a “de-diabolisation” campaign to distance Le Pen from the fascist, thuggish image of her now-sidelined father. Her supporters are referred to as Marinest vs. Le Penist in the press.
In 2014, the National Front took first place in the European Elections, and secured a quarter of votes in the first round of March 2015 local polls—a clear sign the rebrand was working. A poll at the time showed that if the presidential election were held right then, Le Pen would be a shoo-in. The polling also signaled the coming to power of a new generation of dynamic, neoconservative LGBT leaders who are transforming France’s political landscape.
It’s no wonder French LGBT activists are sounding the alarm about a tide of homonationalism—a new buzzword in LGBT circles—while frothing on blogs about the neocon gay pols like Philippot. As with Trump, they’re stunned in an I-can’t-believe-it kind of way.
Didier Lestrade is a gay journalist and one of the founders of ACT UP-Paris who’s been tracking the rise of Le Pen’s gay lobby. In an interview, Lestrade said he wanted to know how she was courting LGBT voters and why others would seek to be candidates, given the National Front’s longtime homophobic, racist profile. There were several reasons, including a reaction to rejection and a disappointment with the political status quo. LGBT conservatives who hope for a career in politics have found the doors closed at the traditional parties, including the present Socialist government, led by President Francois Holland. He feels it’s pushed them to the fringe parties. “It’s ironic,” Lestrade said. “Right now the National Front is the party seen as the friendliest for gays. Marine Le Pen has invited them in.”
The same holds for LGBT conservative voters, who share the present anxieties of their countrymen: economic worries, fears of Islamic terrorism and uncontrolled immigration, and frustration with the usual crop of leaders. Marine Le Pen offers a new face and she isn’t afraid to offend her enemies, though she’s less pugilistic than Trump or her brutish father. (Jean-Marie Le Pen is notorious for his scraps with political enemies. He once punched a socialist woman leader and has launched fervent vocal attacks on other feminists as well.)
“We’re shocked but we shouldn’t be,” states Renee Fregosi, an academic and self-defined feminist lefty, about the LGBT support for Le Pen. “Gays don’t vote only as gays, but as citizens, and they feel an exasperation with the present government. [Le Pen] plays on xenophobia and fear of immigrants. They’re responding to the fear.” Like Trump, she explains, “It’s the personality and the demand. The vote for the National Front is really a rejection, of Europe and the European Union, too. There’s also the marketing that Marine Le Pen has done to present herself as more acceptable.”
National Front supporters are mostly white, and many are from the south of France. The elder Le Pen belonged to the aging generation of ex-colonists who were booted out of Algeria—the Pieds Noirs generation. They include both the laboring class and wanna-be royalists who are nostalgic for the bygone days of colonial glory and conquering heroes like Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte. Where Trump talks about winners and “Making America Great,” the National Front promises to return France to the French—a similar party campaign slogan and thinly-veiled rejection of multiculturalism, Islam, and darker citizens. Since the bombings, Le Pen has homed in on Islamic terrorism to whip up public fears, a xenophobic discourse aimed at France’s large Arab and African citizenry—the children and grandchildren of the colonized.
“Gays and lesbians are scared of what’s happening in France, and they’re vulnerable to the rhetoric,” stated Chrisophe Martet, an AIDS activist and editor of the LGBT magazine YAGG. “It’s clear that since the bombings Marine hasn’t had to do a lot and yet her popularity has increased. We’re at the point where the Socialist party has taken up the discourse and policies of the extreme right about immigration and terrorism, about dual nationality. It’s very reactionary.” In his view, the current economic crisis impacting Europe is a big factor fueling right–wing populism and exposing an ugly undercurrent of xenophobia and racism.
“The issue here is racism and fear of Muslims,” agreed Lestrade, who says gay men in France fear homophobic violence by Islamic extremists. “They know that the Islamic religion is very homophobic,” explained Martet. “They’re seeing what Daesh (ISIS) is doing to gay men, throwing them off rooftops. It’s on the Internet, it’s on TV. They’re afraid.”
So why seek protection from the far right? Is Le Pen really a new friend to the LGBT movement? In interviews, LGBT activists on the right and left appear divided on the question of whether Le Pen’s makeover is real or fake. For his part, Lestrade is buying it. “The National Front is doing exactly what frontist groups are doing in Holland. By addressing gay rights they show they have the same capacity as traditional political parties to see the society. The people from the National Front aren’t saying stuff as hard or as homophobic as the traditional left or even the Socialist party. Le Pen has done a lot to make the National Front as respectable as traditional parties. It’s not a posture,” he concludes.
Others argue that Le Pen has changed her party’s image, but not much else. “Jean-Marie Le Pen was almost a caricature, but Marine Le Pen is a young woman and much more presentable thn her father,” says Catherine Michaud, president of the LGBT conservative group GayLib. “You don’t see the verbal gaffes or hear his lamentable remarks on Jews and the gas chambers. So she’s changed the image, yes, but the window is the same—inside you find the same products. It’s just as stinky.” In Michaud’s view, the National Front “is not a party that unites, but divides. It’s racist, anti-semitic, against women, and homophobic.”
The National Front isn’t exactly waving a rainbow flag at Pride either. V.P. Philippot was publicly closeted until he was outed by Closer magazine in late 2014—the first celebrity gay outing of its kind in France. He sued and won, forcing the magazine to pay a 20,000 Euros fine. The court’s ruling underscored the value French society places on personal privacy. “Politics is the closet that is triple-locked,” joked Martet, who says the frontist gay camp flies under the public radar. Although party insiders were aware of Philippot’s sexuality, the outing scandalized party members, revealing a division over the party’s pink stripe.
Le Pen’s own family members remain staunchly opposed to gay rights; so do the old guard Le Penists. Marine’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, is also a National Front rising star who seeks to challenge her aunt for the top party job one day. She is the youngest member of the French Assemblée Nationale in France’s history and views Emperor Bonaparte as her role model. Last year she marched with her party’s new wing, Jeunesses Nationale—National Youths—to protest le Marriage Pour Tout (marriage equality). But Marine opted out—an absence interpreted as loyalty to her gay friends and one that fueled ongoing speculation about Le Pen’s personal life.
In France, the sniping Le Pen family feuds provide Kardashian-like fodder for the tabloids who revel in the mudfest between modern Marine, monstrous Jean-Marie, purist Marion, and their ambitious clan.
Gay neocons like Philippot aren’t likely to sway their party’s platform on gay topics. “The party maybe doesn’t have the same homophobic speech, but they are opposed to gay marriage—Marine said so,” Martet stated. “Don’t be fooled. If Le Pen takes the presidency, she’ll try to roll back gay marriage.” The opposition to Marriage Pour Tout is well funded and media savvy, he says, and is moving to block proposals on gay adoption, trans rights, and assisted fertilization techniques. It’s a fundamental rejection of LGBT families.
The question remains: how many French LGBT voters now identify as right-wing? For now, the majority of the mainstream LGBT movement remains solidly progressive and left. The organized LGBT conservative wing is represented by groups like GayLib, an offshoot of the established center-right union of Democrats and Independents. GayLib formed during the heyday of Paris gay marriage protest marches—a standout moment of national homophobia, say LGBT activists. Michaud took over as president of the group in 2012. Today, it boasts 1,200 members across France, with 80% being gay men, and a strong base in Paris.
“I consider myself progressive and a humanist,” explained Michaud, who views the National Front as xenophobic and dangerous. “My fight is on the debate over liberty and equality. I’m rather insistent on freedom.”
Michaud was unhappy, but not that surprised, to see one of GayLib’s controversial founders, Sebastien Chenu, jump ship to Marine Le Pen. “The National Front is the only party whose leader is a woman and its deputy is gay,” Chenu told a reporter at Agence France-Presse, about his defection. “Marine Le Pen represents a sort of absolute freedom in a political world that is very policed, where everyone resembles each other. She has come in and shaken things up.” Chenu recently ran for local office in Beauvais as the National Front candidate, his sexuality an open public secret. If Michaud’s GayLib represents gay Log Cabin Republicans, Chenu is one of the young turks who dub Marine their Catholic Queen.
The lure of Le Pen for gays is really worrying for Ludovic Mohamed-Zahed, founder of the Muslim LGBT group HM2F (Homo Muslims of France) and CALEM, a newer umbrella for local LGBT Muslim groups. Born in Algeria, he fled civil war there with his family in 1995 to make his home in Paris, where he remains a rare openly gay Muslim spokesman in the LGBT movement. Since the Paris bombings, he’s amped up his one-man mission to convince his two core communities—Muslims and LGBT—that Islam is compatible with gay life. It remains an uphill road.
“The real root of the problem is one of economics and political identity,” Mohamed-Zahed said about France’s rightward swing and the increased intolerance and violence directed at Muslims. He agrees with LGBT activists who feel that economic insecurity is the deeper driver of populism on the left and right. “Minorities will be target. It’s circumstantial, this wave of nationalism,” he explained. “People are tempted to overtly express their racism, and more people now express support for protectionism when it comes to immigration.”
That’s created an important role for activists like him who are pushing for greater visibility, support, and a role for gay Muslims in France’s LGBT movement. While some welcome his advocacy, the LGBT establishment hasn’t, he said. They’re wary of Islamic religion and homophobia. “It’s a problem for the left in France. They’re secular and very opposed to religion.” Underneath this intolerance, he spies racism.
Lestrade backs up Mohamed-Zahed when it comes to LGBT anti-Muslim prejudice. “Even if a lot of people have been talking about racism, nothing is being done right now.” He added, “Immigration is another issue. It’s incredible that the LGBT community hasn’t even started to think about this. The gay community here needs to wake up,” Lestrade warned. “There’s not a single gay group or demonstration to address this or to work on issues that could bring people together.”
Where does that leave gay opinion on France’s future? Do LGBT activists really believe Le Pen will prevail in 2017? Here, opinions are divided, but there’s consensus on the threat. “If you ask me, the situation in France could not get worse,” said Lestrade, a view echoed by Martet, Fregosi, GayLib’s conservative Michaud, too—and a lot of voter polls. All worry another ISIS terror attack could push everyone further right. So could Europe’s failure to address the immigration crisis. They’re bracing for a fresh anti-marriage assault in upcoming debates over gay adoption, trans rights, and reproductive health. Like everyone else, they’re also eyeing the drama in America, wondering if left, center, and conservative voters will unite to stop Trump—a formula needed to block Marine Le Pen at home.
“I pray she won’t win and right now, as of today, the National Front doesn’t have the votes—at least not yet,” said Martet, summing up the forecast from France. “There are a lot of factors at play; 2017 is going to be a critical year for us. Not just for France—for all of Europe.”