A week before the attack on Charlie Hebdo, France’s leading gay magazine, Têtu, announced the winner of its annual beauty contest. His name was Matthieu Chartraire, and he was 22, doe-eyed and six-packed, with perfectly groomed hair, stubble and eyebrows. A pin-up in every way — until he started talking.
To the anger of many of the magazine’s readers, the Adonis of 2015 turns out to be an outspoken supporter of the Front National.
Têtu’s editor-in-chief, Yannick Barbe, refused to play censor. ‘It’s within his rights to vote for the FN even if we don’t share his beliefs,’ he said. ‘This is a beauty pageant, and our readers’ vote was only based on a single criterion! He only stands for himself and not for the gay community.’
Barbe has a point (although from next year, it’s worth noting, entrants for Têtu’s beauty contest will have to sign a code of ethics that rejects discrimination). But his assertion that Chartraire does not stand for the gay community overlooks a trend that has been accelerating over the last decade: French gay votersare falling for the Front National’s leader, Marine Le Pen. A survey by the polling firm Ifop indicates a dramatic increase in support for the FN among homosexual and bisexual voters since the French presidential elections of April 2012. It showed, for instance, that in Paris 26 per cent of homosexuals supported Le Pen, compared with 16 per cent of hetero-sexuals.
‘After the financial crisis started you could tell that a switch [to the far right] was happening across the nation. But the fact that it was happening in the gay community was particularly telling,’ Didier Lestrade, a gay activist who has written a book on the subject, tells me. ‘We knew that not all gay people are from the left. Even so, it was hard for my generation [he is 56] to believe that anti-Arab and anti-black opinions were starting to pop up on apps like Grindr and Cruise.’
An insight into the phenomenon comes from Patrick McCarthy, a young gay blogger who lives in Bordeaux. ‘Up until 2005, Bordeaux was a very gay-friendly city,’ he says. ‘Same-sex couples could openly walk down the street holding hands without any problems. However, in the space of two months, five gay men were murdered in the city. The blame was put on Bordeaux’s Muslim community since some of these hate crimes were carried out by people of Arabic origins.’
The Bordeaux gay scene has dwindled since the attacks, but McCarthy says that he, like Lestrade, is alarmed at the way that assaults by a few Arabs have created a major polemical opposition between gays and Muslims. The Front National now offers a welcoming home to gay people who feel judged by Muslims and share wider concerns about immigration and the loss of French identity.
That gay men now feel comfortable with the Front National is the result of a deliberate effort by its leader, Marine Le Pen, who has pursued a programme of detoxification (the French term is ‘de-diabolisation’) ever since she took control of the party in 2011. Her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, who led the FN from its founding in 1972 until Marine took over, described homosexuality as a ‘biological and social anomaly’. In the 1980s he argued that all individuals with Aids should be kept in isolation, and in the 1990s was still declaring that ‘There are no queens in the National Front.’
By contrast, Marine has worked hard to expand the FN’s membership beyond obvious bigots, racists and skinheads. She has publicly condemned anti-Semitism and insists that, far from being racist, her party is the only one that defends secularity and democracy against Islamisation. A key part of this strategy is using the Islamist threat to court the sort of people that the far right has traditionally persecuted. It’s working. In the 2012 presidential elections, Le Pen won 13.5 per cent of the Jewish vote. A surprising enough statistic, but her appeal to gay activists has created even more waves. Just before Christmas, her deputy Florian Philippot was outed as gay by Closer: the same magazine that exposed Hollande’s affair with Julie Gayet. Around the same time, Le Pen appointed a new adviser: Sébastien Chenu, one of the founders of the activist organisation GayLib. FN traditionalists complained loudly that their party was being taken over by a gay cabal. (Those complaining included Marine’s 25-year-old niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, an MP and a rising star in the party.)
What, beyond support against the threat of Islamic fundamentalists, does Marine Le Pen’s FN claim to offer to a gay political activist? Officially Le Pen does not support the legalisation of gay marriage, which the French government passed last year. But like other far right leaders in Europe, notably Geert Wilders of Holland’s Freedom party, she sees the value of the gay vote. When huge demonstrations were held against gay marriage in Paris in 2013, she refused to take part. She seems able to walk the conceptual tightrope between what her party’s old membership wants and what its potential members need to hear. Her response to the outing of Philipott was to attack Closer and change the subject: ‘Florian Philippot is entitled to a private life as much as François Hollande,’ she said.
Switching attention back to the hapless president was a shrewd move. Hollande’s dismal popularity ratings (at the end of last year they sank to 12 per cent, the lowest recorded score for a sitting president) also contribute to the Front National’s success. Although Hollande pushed through the legalisation of gay marriage last year, many left-wing gay voters were disappointed that he failed to give the bill his personal support until the last minute. The centre-right UMP, meanwhile, issued a legal challenge the moment the bill had been approved by vote. Even critics such as Lestrade recognise that the FN offers more to ambitious young gay political activists than the more mainstream parties. ‘I think if you are gay, you’re going to make a difference there in a way you won’t get a chance to in the Socialist party or the UMP,’ he says.
Bruno Clavet is an out and proud gay activist for the FN. A politics graduate and a former underwear model, he tells me that when he was 18 he worked for Nicolas Sarkozy during the 2007 presidential election, but switched to the FN just before the most recent one. I ask him if it troubles him that his party has a strong anti-gay past. ‘I don’t think the FN is anti-gay,’ he replies. ‘We are against ghettoisation [into racial or sexual communities]. For me there is only one community, it’s the national community — the French people.’ This is the new spirit of French nationalism, one that resonates loudly in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 24 January 2015