Could Gay Issues Save the French Left From an Embarrassing Electoral Defeat?

Mayor Bertrand Delanoë (center, in light-colored jacket) marches with Deputy Mayor Anne Hidalgo (to his right) during Paris’$2 2013 Gay Pride celebration.

Photo by Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

On March 23, French voters will head to the polls for municipal elections, and gay issues will likely play a key role. In fact, the conflict over gay marriage, which dominated French domestic politics in 2013, may well save President François Hollande’s Socialist Party from electoral embarrassment … at least in Paris.

Since 2001, Paris has had an openly gay mayor, the Socialist Party’s Bertrand Delanoë. At the time of his election, Delanoë was not a star, but, rather, a hard-working political insider who had come out as gay only in 1998. Delanoë’s administration has been relatively LGBTQ-friendly, but not excessively so. It has given financial support to an expanded LGBTQ community center, but it refused requests for municipal funding for a national LGBTQ archive. Municipal support for the 2018 Gay Games bid was outstanding, but the first Paris bid for the 2010 Gay Games received much more discreet backing, with little public engagement from the mayor, who at the time was bidding for the 2012 Olympics.

Nationally, the French left is fairly LGBTQ-friendly. François Mitterrand fully decriminalized homosexuality in 1982. The government of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin created civil unions, known as PACS, in 1999, and François Hollande’s current administration laboriously instituted marriage and adoption equality (though it has now pulled back from authorizing surrogacy or artificial insemination for LGBTQ people).

Last year’s “debate” over marriage equality exposed an ugly truth about France: It’s full of homophobes. Hollande was personally reluctant to follow through on the Socialists’ long-standing promise of marriage equality. He handled the new law about as clumsily as possible, postponing its introduction until well after his honeymoon period, and declaring that, contrary to the French Constitution, mayors would be able to adopt the status of conscientious objectors and refuse to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies. (He quickly back-pedaled on that last promise.) Politicians, mostly from the right, took advantage of the government’s delays and hesitations to make the most of the vocal homophobia embodied in the “Manifestation pour tous” movement. (The term translates as “Demonstration for Everyone” and is a play on the French term for equal marriage: “le mariage pour tous.”)

Although the marriage equality debate provided politicians with ample opportunities to express their homophobia, Parisians are less tolerant of such opinions than the average French voter. In particular, the well-off couples and young families of the “bobo”—that is bohemian-bourgeois—class are concentrated in the left-leaning eastern arrondissements of the city, as well as in the key “swing arrondissements” that are required to win a municipal election here.

After his re-election in 2008, Delanoë announced that he wouldn’t run for a third term. Instead, his protégée, first deputy mayor Anne Hidalgo, was duly designated as the Socialist Party’s leader for the municipal elections, and the presumptive mayor of Paris. She is running with Communist candidates in the first round, and is likely to head into the second round of voting on March 30 with members of other LGBTQ-friendly parties (the Greens and the Leftist Front) joining hers in a broad coalition. She’s been running a good campaign, despite a generalized anti-government sentiment, and she has a steady but small lead over her right-wing rival. 

That rival is the candidate of the UMP, the successor to the party founded by Jacques Chirac and refounded by Nicolas Sarkozy. The UMP seemed to have made a smart choice in its leader for the 2014 campaign: Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, widely known as NKM. She may be a political aristocrat, but she’s a woman, she’s young, she’s attractive, and she served under Sarkozy in fashionable bobo-friendly fields as minister for ecology and secretary of state for the digital economy. She also has useful experience in municipal politics.

NKM looks good on paper, but despite supposedly having Lucrezia Borgia among her ancestors, she is not quite the political animal that Chirac was or Sarkozy is, and has failed to remove many of the entrenched, and often homophobic, barons of Paris politics as she put together her lists. (In the French electoral system, voters cast their ballots for party lists, rather than individual candidates, and depending on the result of the vote, zero to theoretically all the candidates on a list are elected.)

NKM has taken pains to look modern and gay-friendly to preserve her chances with the bobos. When Paris was chosen as host of the Gay Games, NKM immediately tweeted a congratulatory message. And when the French parliament voted on marriage equality, NKM abstained rather than follow the vast majority of her UMP colleagues in opposing the law.

These positions satisfied neither LGBTQ-friendly voters nor the homophobes. Her support for the Gay Games was in contrast with the opposition of the UMP Paris city councilors she is leading into battle. But her tweet continues to be cited by those who declare her a RINO (right in name only). In the French parliament, an abstention is the same as a “no” vote, so she offered nothing meaningful to proponents of equality, while her lack of opposition is one more piece of evidence that she is not conservative enough for right-wing voters.

After appearing to succeed in removing the most seriously homophobic candidates from her party’s lists, she suffered an embarrassing reversal when the final lists filed with the clerks yesterday included figures such as François Lebel, currently mayor of the 8th arrondissement. Last year, NKM declared that it was out of the question that Lebel—who had declared in an editorial in the municipal magazine that marriage equality was an open door to incest, polygamy, and pedophilia—would appear on her lists. But NKM was overruled in the 8th and has had to save face by explaining that since Lebel would not be a candidate for the central Paris city council nor for an executive position in the 8th, she would not oppose his presence. Among the other candidates running on her lists is Franck Margain, who has called for politicians to control the purchase of books in municipal libraries so as to avoid the presence of works “promoting homo-parenthood.”

But it’s not just the UMP that has the difficult task of being fundamentally homophobic while trying to run a campaign in a fairly gay-friendly city. Even the arch-homophobes of the National Front (the party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who wanted people with AIDS to be locked up in asylums) have managed to dig up some gay candidates to run in Paris. In the Marais, Paris’s gay neighborhood, five of the six men on the National Front list are openly gay, including a gay underwear model.

While there is a great deal of discontent with the Socialist-led majority in national government, French voters are generally fond of their mayors. It’s not unlike the American phenomenon of voters feeling that Congress is rotten but their representative is a good guy. But with less than 20 percent of voters having a favorable opinion of him, Hollande faces punishment in these first nationwide elections since the presidential and legislative elections of 2012.

Two factors may mitigate the harm to the left, at least in Paris: Soon after the municipal elections, the elections to the European Parliament will take place, offering voters an opportunity to express displeasure with Hollande in a contest that most French people consider meaningless.

And while the left is sure to lose votes nationwide, in Paris and other major cities, the right’s opposition to gay marriage, and even more, their implicit or explicit support for the virulent homophobes the issue revealed, may be enough to sink their chances to convert those 80 percent of unhappy French voters into a majority. If so, France’s LGBTQ citizens may have the last laugh.