Queer Lessons from Marine Le Pen’s Rise

Marine Le Pen and Florian

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and her gay deputy, Florian Philippot, in 2012. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

What will happen to the French LGBTQ community if far-right populist Marine Le Pen wins the presidency? On the eve of the election, many gay people and French progressives are taking heart that Le Pen is trailing her rival, Emmanuel Macron, a centrist and a banker who is holding an average lead of 60 percent to her 40 percent in polls. The spoiler could be many leftists, who dislike Macron, a son of the French elite who launched the En Marche! party. To them, indie Macron still represents politics as usual. They also staunchly reject Le Pen, whose Euro-skeptic, anti-immigrant National Front party carries the stench of fascism that stems from Le Pen’s father, founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, a Holocaust denialist.

Current polls show 25 percent of voters will abstain from the election — a move that could favor Le Pen and points to the deep disaffection of progressive voters, including LGBTQ ones. I believe Macron will win, and all of pluralistic Europe will breathe a giant sigh of relief. They may then think that the threat posed by Marine Le Pen and the National Front is all but over — a sign that the resurgent wave of xenophobic nationalism has crested, that Europe and the European Union are safe and secure in their present form. No Frexit, and a diminished threat of far-right homophobia to French homosexuals.

That would be a mistake. One take-home lesson from Sunday’s critical election — there are many — is the need to look at what it has revealed about evolving French LGBTQ attitudes and the movement for LGBTQ rights. For starters, it’s not a monolithic community. French gay voters have not been idle; many have shifted right. They’ve pushed forward an archconservative candidate whose party has an antigay platform based on traditional Catholic values. Yet Marine Le Pen has opened the door for conservative LGBTQ politicians. It would also be a mistake to be surprised about any of this. But it invites the question: What relationship does sexual orientation have to progressive values here?

Over the past two years, European LGBTQ activists have spilled considerable ink, furiously calling out the ambitious gay pols who’ve jumped on board the National Front’s ticket at the local level. They’ve done this in part because the left parties, including the fractured Socialist Party, proved themselves rather homophobic and slow to support LGBTQ candidates as well as women. As with Trump, the pro-Le Pen LGBTQ vote reflects a rejection of failed establishment political parties. It’s true that there’s a major difference between Le Pen and Macron on critical issues like immigration and the Euro, but on issues of LGBTQ rights, not so much. The left parties were also slow to embrace marriage pour tout, or marriage euality. The parties remain dominated by white men, feminists charge. That’s made it easier for Le Pen to invite gays into her party tent.

Are these well-groomed, publicly polished, conservative gays vying to be local mayors all racist, fascist, self-hating closet cases? Well, some may be, but most consider themselves to be socially progressive and fiscally conservative: mainstream Log Cabin types. They view France’s economic malaise and the issue of unchecked immigration and ISIS bombings as perhaps more politically urgent than the right to marry. They are Catholic sons and daughters who don’t know their Muslim and Arab neighbors, who feel alienated in their fast-changing mixed neighborhoods, who worry about ISIS bombs.

I’m writing this based on personal observation. As I discuss in my new memoir, The Pox Lover, I’m the daughter of a French parent and have relatives in France. Some plan to vote for Le Pen, just as some relatives here voted for Trump. Even French gay activists who fervently oppose Le Pen agree that her rhetoric sounds different from her hard-line father’s, though at heart she’s not so different. It’s also true she’s hired and promoted a surprising number of LGBTQ candidates. Supporters point out that Le Pen declined to march in the big anti-gay marriage street march this year, in stark contrast to her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, also a party rising star who admires Napoléon Bonaparte. Friends of friends who know Le Pen insist she’s not personally homophobic, but rather gay-friendly — enough for some to overlook the fascist stench of her party. It’s also true that the National Front has reformed its platform over the years.

Le Pen is divorced, with three children. She’s a woman, which appeals to many. It’s perhaps ironic to some that her telegenic number 2 is gay deputy Florian Philippot. He’s the aide largely credited with the successful “de-diabolicisation” campaign to soften her and the National Front’s image, a man critics say Le Pen chose over her pugnacious father. The elder Le Pen remains vocally opposed to his prodigal daughter’s embrace of “les pédés” — the fags. But Philippot’s youthful, media-savvy PR skills have swayed critics in his party. Philippot was publicly closeted before he was outed in 2014 by Closer magazine. He sued in protest — and won damages. As a group, the Le Pen gay pols are also private about their personal lives. They’re the picture of assimilation and success, well groomed. Good white Catholic (grown-up) girls and boys.

They’re also a group we should now pay close attention to, whether Le Pen loses or wins the election. Her LGBTQ aides have openly promoted the National Front PR rhetoric that warns French gays that radical Islamists are out to murder them. They can point now to Chechnya and the unfolding gay pogrom as proof of such a threat in France. Similarly they warned women, including lesbians, that the wave of Islamic immigrants who have flooded into Europe and France escaping ISIS and civil wars are a threat to feminism, to the hard-won civil rights of French women.

Such targeted messages are xenophobic and racist, yes, and yet they manage to strike a personal chord among some French LGBTQ voters who remain socially vulnerable. It says: Islam is the enemy of gays, of modern women, of modern France. By extension so are all Muslims. It’s a very dangerous, divisive, tacitly racist message, one that seeks to split communities, and it must be fought with equally clear messaging by all French progressives, many of whom identify as secular and alienated from religion.

Last fall, a survey from the French Institute of Public Opinion of French voters found that 26 percent of homosexuals in Paris supported the National Front, compared with 16 percent of heterosexuals. After Sunday, post-election polls will show us the final count. Win or lose, Marine Le Pen has driven a solid wedge of Islamophobia and xenophobia into French LGBTQ life and culture.  It’s critical now for LGBTQ leaders in France — and globally — to address this division and to invite Muslim LGBTQ citizens to have a greater voice in countering such racist, xenophobic narratives. That’s also a crucial challenge for France itself. It’s past time to hold a mirror up to the self and change.

ANNE-CHRISTINE D’ADESKY is a longtime journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker. She is a reporter for KQED’s health blog, The Future of You, and writes for other publications. Her '90s activist memoir, The Pox Lover (University of Wisconsin Press) is out in June and tracks the rise of right-wing populism in France and the U.S., and the legacy of the '90s AIDS activist movement. (For more visit ThePoxLover.com.)

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