France’s far right National Front party announced Friday that the cofounder of a prominent gay rights group was joining its ranks and will be a future candidate in elections, a surprise move for a group that has long been linked to homophobic views.
Party leader Marine Le Pen and Sébastian Chenu held a joint press conference in Paris to confirm he was leaving the right-wing opposition Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party to work alongside the anti-immigration National Front (FN).
Chenu, a former UMP general secretary, is mostly known in France as one of the founders of GayLib, a gay rights group that also describes itself as being in the centre-right of the political spectrum.
“I am joining Marine Le Pen because of her consistent views on Europe and social issues,” Chenu told reporters.
The 41-year-old politician accused the UMP of fully accepting France’s “submissive” relationship to the European Union. Chenu also added that the UMP and Nicolas Sarkozy, the party’s newly elected president, were “alarmingly” out of touch with LGBT issues.
“[Sarkozy] declared that he supported striking down the gay marriage law,” Chenu lamented in reference to a November 15 speech in front of party members. At the same time, he questioning the former French president’s true convictions on the subject: “he could have said the exact opposite if he was speaking to a gay rights group.”
Chenu’s decision to join Le Pen, based, at least in part, on the hot-button issue of gay marriage, has nevertheless confounded observers, since the FN officially remains opposed to marriage-equality legislation France adopted in 2013, commonly referred to as the “Mariage pour tous”, or Marriage for all, law.
“I will remind you that we are opposed to the marriage for all question, and that we have declared we would repeal the law,” Louis Aliot, Vice-president of the FN and a European MP, was quick to point out in an interview with Radio France International (RFI) on Friday.
Aliot insisted Chenu and the FN had found common ground in their shared rejection of transferring political powers to the EU.
GayLib, which works closely with the UMP, also rushed to highlight the contradiction in Chenu’s decision and to pour censure on one of its original members.
According to GayLib, by tying the knot with the far-right group, Chenu had “betrayed all the political values and objectives that he supposedly defended, in particular the rights of the LGBT community.”
“Sébastian Chenu is joining a political platform that has publicly expressed its rejection of marriage and adoption for same-sex couples,” GayLib deplored in a statement.
Outing Marine Le Pen’s ‘gay lobby’
While Chenu’s induction into the FN family has raised eyebrows and drawn scrutiny, it also appears to confirm Marine Le Pen’s intention to distance the party from her firebrand father and FN founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Le Pen father is infamous for labelling the Holocaust a “detail” in the history of World War Two, but also for declaring on primetime TV in 1984 that homosexuality was a “biological and social anomaly”, and two years later recommending that HIV patients be confined to “AIDS-atoriums.”
Since Le Pen daughter took over the FN in 2011, she has avoided similar incendiary comments and worked hard to make her party more palatable to French constituents. In an often quoted statement after she took the reins of the party, Marine Le Pen called the Holocaust “the ultimate act of barbarism.”
A few weeks later she made another pronouncement at the party’s annual May 1 rally that rang out for many as an appeal for change within the party: “Whether man or woman, heterosexual or homosexual, Christian, Jewish or Muslim, we are foremost French.”
Claims of rampant immigration and insecurity have remained the party’s key issues under Marine Le Pen, but evidence suggests that hate speech directed at Jews and homosexuals is off the agenda. French media, including far-right weekly Minute, have reported that an important number of men in Marine Le Pen’s inner circle are gay, referring to them as her “gay lobby.”
Coincidently, FN party officer Florian Philippot announced this week that he would sue tabloid magazine Closer for recently publishing photos of him and another man the weekly claimed was his boyfriend. Philippot has never publicly confirmed or denied he was gay.
While Chenu’s decision to flip from the UMP to the FN has caught many people off guard, others will see the announcement as further proof of the widening rift between Marine Le Pen entourage and the party’s old guard.
Running away from Islam?
At the height of the anti-gay marriage protests in France last year, Marine Le Pen was nowhere to be seen, even as other FN leaders broke rank to take part in the massive marches. Le Pen’s conspicuous absence has been attributed to her friendship and commitment to Philippot.
Some journalists in France have moved beyond the debate over whether Le Pen’s “gay lobby” really exists, and have asked how gay men can be attracted to a far-right party and why many were considering voting for Marine Le Pen.
In his 2012 book “Why are gays turning to the right” (Pourquoi les gays sont passés à droite, Seuil) French journalist and writer Didier Lestrade suggested gay men in France who feel threatened by hardline Muslim rhetoric are being encouraged by the FN’s anti-Islam rhetoric.
Sylvain Crépon, a French researcher and expert on far right movements in Europe, has said FN leaders are ready to exploit the trend – whether it is widespread or only anecdotal – for electoral gain.
The FN may not have a history of defending gay causes in France, but it is well positioned to denounce the persecution of gay Frenchmen by Muslims in suburbs where immigrants are often in the majority, the researcher explained.
“It’s as much the harassment of gays perpetrated by Muslims as Marine Le Pen’s statements denouncing it that are driving homosexuals to the National Front,” Crépon said.