Is Homophobia Really on the Rise in France?

Wilfred de Bruijn and Olivier Coudert
Wilfred de Bruijn and his boyfriend Olivier Coudert, who became the symbol of a series of homophobic attacks in 2013, photographed when their facial injuries were mostly healed.

Photo by Charles Platiau/Reuters

Yesterday, Outward noted the rising expressions of homophobia in France. The post is based on a report in the Local about the 2013 annual report from SOS Homophobie, a homophobia hotline and LGBTQ defense organization.

I have the greatest respect for SOS Homophobie. They work closely with FSGL, the French LGBTQ sports federation, on actions against homophobia in sport. Their hotline and their reports are precious tools for supporting victims of homophobia and for targeting areas of action. But given the lack of official statistics from the government (France, like many European countries, has an aversion to collecting data about minorities, since the last time this was done in the country, a lot of Jews ended up in death camps), we can only note the limits of this report, which is based on calls to the SOS Homophobie hotline.

The cases are striking to Americans because of the widely held fallacy that France is a tolerant society. This is not entirely the case. Religious diversity is tolerated as long as minorities remain quiet. “Laïcité,” the French version of secularism, favors Catholicism and is often used as a cudgel against the Muslim (and in some cases the Jewish) minority.

Sexual liberation is often more about the freedom to sexually exploit women rather than freedom for women to live their sex lives freely. Americans note all the images of naked women in French advertising, but it is only recently that we’ve seen any equivalent objectification of the male body. While full frontal nudity is found in French television and movies, it almost always depicts women.

The country remains Catholic in mindset, with a significant minority of French people who oppose not just homosexuality but also abortion and contraception. (There’s a weekly street protest at the abortion center of the hospital close to my home in Paris, for example.)

Some take the media’s silence about public figures’ homosexuality as a sign of a lack of homophobia. But this silence applies to the sex lives of public figures, gay and straight, and in particular of politicians, and cannot be taken as public approval of homosexuality.

Much more than in the United States, the vision France has of itself is manufactured within an elite: middle and upper class, white, and most important, Parisian. Their experience is generally one of worldly openness to homosexuality, but it’s not the experience of countless French people in the provinces, of the immigrants in the suburbs, or of working-class French people. No one voices their experience, so it doesn’t exist. In France, if the elite doesn’t talk about it, and the government doesn’t record it, it doesn’t exist, and that applies to homophobia.

One of my first experiences of this phenomenon came when I moved to France several decades ago. I was told that domestic abuse was an American phenomenon that did not exist in France, and informed that the proof of this assertion was the absence of statistics showing domestic abuse. This, of course, was to be expected, since the government didn’t collect such statistics. While the French are strong in the study of philosophy, the notion of “tautology” seems to have escaped them. Likewise with homophobia: Before SOS Homophobie, no one was collecting any data, so homophobia didn’t exist. Now, thanks to these (unofficial) statistics, it’s clear that there is a problem. The question remains: Is it really getting worse?

In my opinion, there isn’t a significant rise in homophobia in France. The increase in reporting (and only in certain kinds of complaints: the numbers of homophobic acts from one’s neighbors, which have far more consequences than hateful Internet comments, are stable, and low in number) is more a revelation of the existing homophobia in the country than proof that it’s increasing.

In the last two years there have been many more opportunities for homophobia to be expressed, first and foremost on the Internet. Whatever the subject, if a story deals with LGTBQ people, there will be homophobic responses online.

If there are more reports of homophobia, it is partly because of more homophobic incidents. But it is also because of more reporting of those incidents. For many years French LGBTQ people bought into the notion that France was tolerant. The virulence of the attacks on homosexuals during the adoption of marriage equality was a revelation to these gays, as were the visible physical assaults on gay men.

More than a year ago, during the “debate” on marriage equality, a gay couple, Wilfred and Olivier, were assaulted in Paris. The photo of Wilfred’s battered face, posted to Facebook with the caption “This is the face of homophobia,” became the symbol of a series of homophobic attacks at the time. The trial of those accused of the assault began earlier this month. It’s unlikely that either the legal action or the publication of the photo would have occurred in the past. Gays often failed to associate the abuse they received individually as part of an attack on an entire community. Certainly, filing a criminal complaint in France is more valuable as a political act than for retribution or compensation. While the police are good at arresting suspects, sometimes even the guilty parties, the justice system provides at best a moral victory. In a case judged just last month, the perpetrator of a particularly violent homophobic assault that has left the victim with impaired vision was found guilty and sentenced to just four months in prison and less than $10,000 in damages. 

This is why I’m taking the rise in reports of homophobia as a positive: They are tied to public debate about equality, which continues to progress (despite the current government’s backsliding on reproductive rights for same-sex couples). It’s a time of progress for LGBTQ rights in France, and that’s a good thing, even if it generates expressions of homophobia. Our response to this homophobia has been an increased sense of community, and that’s a good thing, too. For the victims of assault that’s not much comfort, except to know that when they fight back, they have the support of LGBTQ people and allies. It’s impossible to fight homophobia if your working assumption is that it doesn’t exist. SOS Homophobie’s report may not prove that homophobia is on the rise in France, but it does show that it exists, and that’s a huge step in the fight for equality.