PARIS (AP) — A political party that would abolish same-sex marriage – one whose founder wanted AIDS patients rounded up and branded homosexuality “a biological and social anomaly” – is now winning LGBT votes in France.
Motivated in part by the deadly Islamic extremist attacks at home and at a Florida gay nightclub, a growing bloc of traditionally left-leaning gay voters has embraced French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, leader of the once-fringe National Front party.
“Faced with the current threats, particularly from radical Islam, gays have realized they’ll be the first victims of these barbarians, and only Marine is proposing radical solutions,” said Kelvin Hopper, 25, a gay artist who lives in a hipster district of Paris and plans to cast his ballot for Le Pen.
While nobody knows how far Le Pen’s supporters will carry her in the April 23-May 7 vote, several years of polls have shown the National Front is now more popular with the LGBT voters who make up 6.5 percent of the French electorate than it is with straight voters.
That the constituency once reviled by the party is buoying it suggests populism has taken root in France more deeply than previously thought.
The embrace goes both ways.
Since taking over the National Front in 2011, Le Pen has worked to soften the racist, homophobic reputation of the party co-founded by her father who was twice-prosecuted for Holocaust denial.
Surrounding herself with gay advisers, a strategy known as “pinkwashing,” has been a key part of these efforts that have put her within striking distance of the presidential Elysee.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, 88, once declared “there are no queens” in the National Front and, in a sulfurous assault on the gay community in the 1980s, compared AIDS-sufferers to lepers whom he advocated keeping in isolation centers.
To “de-demonize” the party and give it wider appeal, his daughter publicly shunned him. In a stark irony of history, Marine Le Pen’s National Front has more top aides who are publicly known to be gay than any other French political party.
The unusual distinction prompted commentators to give Le Pen the epithet “Pink Marine.”
The most prominent of the party’s gay operatives is her No. 2, Vice-President Florian Philippot. He came out after being unwittingly photographed by a gossip magazine on a private weekend away in Vienna with a man in 2014.
The mass shooting at the Pulse gay club in Orlando, Florida, in June also boosted Le Pen’s standing with LGBT voters.
Shortly after recordings emerged in which the U.S.-born attacker who killed 49 people pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, Le Pen declared “how much homosexuality is attacked in countries that live under the Islamist jackboot.”
Although some critics have accused her of opportunism, the rebranding work has paid off.
French polling firm IFOP says its surveys show a “constant progression of the National Front among the gay electorate” since Marine Le Pen took over. At 16.5 percent, the proportion of gay, lesbian and bisexual people supporting the party last fall was 2 percentage points higher than its share of straight voters, according to the firm’s research.
“There is a large risk that the Orlando killing exacerbates an anti-Muslim sentiment among sexual minorities, all the more so because they have shown for several years to be more and more responsive to the security and anti-immigrant discourse of the National Front,” the study says.
Surprisingly, research of voting patterns also shows that one-third of gays who wed after France legalized same-sex marriage in 2013 voted for National Front candidates in the 2015 regional elections – even though the party would scrap the marriage equality law.
Courting LGBT voters, “pinkwashing” the far-right, has been a delicate dance for Le Pen.
She was noticeably absent from divisive nationwide protests against the same-sex marriage law introduced by the Socialist government of outgoing President Francois Hollande.
Yet she can’t afford to alienate the party’s old guard as she tries to broaden its base. Buried in her election manifesto is a pledge to abolish gay marriage, a position aimed at appeasing the National Front’s conservative flank.
National Front Chief Campaign Strategist Sebastien Chenu, who is the most open about his sexual orientation among the party’s gay top officials, disagreed that the plan was homophobic during an interview with The Associated Press.
In its place, Chenu explained, would be a bolstered civil unions law providing same-sex couples with “the same duties, the same obligations” as marriage, he said.
Chenu agrees that the National Front has seen a spike in support because of fear from the extremist attacks France has endured in recent years. The number of gay men in prominent positions within the party is a much less significant factor, he said.
“Those who want to fight against freedoms are Islamic radicals,” Chenu said. “They put bombs in gay night clubs in the United States. So obviously, it creates an anxiety for a certain number of gays.”
France is not the only place where right wing rhetoric conflating Islam with radical jihad has been used to shake up long-standing political alliances.
In the Netherlands, Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders said that his party, which is hostile to Muslims and wants to halt immigration, should hold natural appeal for LGBT voters.
“We were always one of the top parties that were supported by (the gay) community. We believe that like Christians and Jews and women and journalists, gay people are also one of the first to pay the price of … Islamization,” Wilders said.
In the United States, President Donald Trump, too, has used rhetoric expressing solidarity with gays as a means of attacking some Muslim-majority countries – claiming during the presidential debates last year that they “push gays off of buildings.”
The lurch to the right by LGBT voters – called homonationalism – deeply shocks those who see the nationalist sentiments sweeping Europe as a threat that could erode hard-fought freedoms, not protect them.
“It is true that terror attacks and religious extremists brought huge publicity to Marine Le Pen. And she profits from this. She profits from people’s fear,” Yannick Fredefon, a gay Paris resident, said.
One factor that explains the new wave of LGBT support is that many Le Pen voters are millennials like Hopper who are too young to remember the National Front’s neo-fascist roots or the acid anti-gay sentiments openly expressed by her father.
Others, especially gay men, are in awe of the blond, blue-eyed, 48-year-old former lawyer’s persona – they see an audacious, strong-willed woman writing the rules in a world of men.
If elected, Le Pen would be France’s first female president.
“Marine is a strong, combative, honest woman,” Hopper said.
Experts say the wooing strategy works best on gay people who see the fight for equality as over and no longer feel obligated to support the liberal politicians who traditionally defend their rights.
“Having recently acquired the right to marry and adopt children, an important part of the gay electorate is turning to the extreme right because they do not need to support the left anymore on these issues,” IFOP pollster Francois Kraus said.
But gay rights groups in France warn against complacency.
“The simple idea of reversing (the marriage equality) law is in itself a homophobic act as it is to want discrimination again,” said Clemence Zamora Cruz, a spokeswoman for Inter-LGBT, a coalition of French LGBT rights groups.