After losing the 2012 French presidential election to François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy swore he was leaving politics for good. He made a stab at business in the following years, bankrolled by his friends in Qatar, but was an even bigger failure at that than he had been as president. After months of fake suspense, he finally made the official announcement last week that he would run to lead his political party, the UMP, which is crippled by corruption scandals (many involving Sarkozy’s own 2012 presidential campaign) and drowning in debt.
Although a majority of French people would like Sarkozy to go away, he remains popular among party members, and is the clear favorite to win UMP leadership race, which would in turn position him well to become the right-wing party’s candidate for the presidency in 2017. But with his comments last Sunday about marriage equality—he suggested it was “humiliating” to straight families—Sarkozy may have weakened his chances of winning by bringing jaded LGBTQ voters back into play.
These comments are striking, since LGBTQ rights previously seemed to be an area about which Sarkozy had no strong feelings one way or another. Among the reforms Sarkozy promised in his 2007 campaign but somehow failed to produce during his frenetic presidency was civil unions, an improved version of the PACS, which had been created by the previous Socialist government (and strongly opposed by Sarkozy’s party). It took François Hollande to actually achieve that goal and more; the current president’s only major reform has been marriage equality, and even there he has been half-hearted about it, abandoning plans to allow for artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization for same-sex couples, and surrogacy for couples in general. Still, because this has been his most visible achievement, it is also a huge target for opponents.
As the possibility of a new Sarkozy candidacy moves closer to reality, LGBTQ people and allies are wondering what will become of marriage equality should the right take power. While the far-right National Front has said they would eliminate same-sex marriage, the UMP has no uniform message on the future of same-sex unions. The pragmatic camp says that there’s no going back, but there are plenty in the party who want to at the least stop future marriages, if not unmarry existing same-sex couples. Sarkozy’s rivals in the UMP have different positions. Alain Juppé says that he would change nothing. François Fillon, Sarkozy’s prime minister, says he would “rewrite” the law to prevent same-sex couples from adopting. But what does Sarkozy, the odds-on favorite to lead the right, intend to do?
That, alas, is not easy to determine. Some report that Sarkozy was peeved by the extremism of the anti-equality movement. He has said: “I don’t care about marriage for all. It’s not an issue. In any case I’ve always defended civil unions [for same-sex couples].” At the same meeting where he reportedly decried the anti-equality camp, those present say that he excluded nothing with regard to abrogation of the law.
Sarkozy began his official return to politics with a Facebook post, but he made his big splash with a long interview on public TV channel France 2’s Sunday evening news. The final question was a simple “yes” or “no” to whether Sarkozy would repeal the law. Sarkozy refused to answer, which has infuriated the homophobes. But in the rest of his non-response response, he also demonstrated his ignorance of the reality of LGBTQ people in France, and his lack of respect for their legitimate desires to found families.
“I hate the way it [the law creating marriage equality] took place,” he began his rant:
They [the Socialists] humiliated the family, they humiliated so many good people who never in their life thought they would demonstrate in the streets, and who felt injured because they [the Socialists] were attacking their love of family! They were humiliated, they became radicalized. A great result for a president who claimed to bring together France! You ask me if I would do the same. My answer is clearly no, I will not use families against homosexuals as homosexuals were used against families. It is a shame! We’ll look closely at these matters. And believe me, having courage is not something that has changed for me.
As Emily Tamkin noted in her Outward post on these comments, it’s difficult to take Nicolas Sarkozy seriously when he defends families and marriage. During the debate on marriage equality, he exclaimed: “Soon they [gays and lesbians] will get together in fours to make a baby.” That insult was puzzling since Sarkozy himself has made his own children in a group of four: Two sons with his first wife Marie-Dominique Culioli, another with his second wife Cécilia Ciganer-Albéniz, and a daughter with his current wife, singer and ex-model Carla Bruni.
But irony aside, the notion that there are families on one side and homosexuals on the other is profoundly insulting, and demonstrates great ignorance of the reality of families of same-sex couples, or more probable, great cynicism. This is no dog whistle: This is a clear message to the homophobes in his party that he is on their side. For Sarkozy (at least the current version), marriage equality is an affront to family, a weapon used by the Socialists as part of an assault on the values of ordinary people.
And what a significant choice of words! The good people of France were “humiliated.” Not the queer people told they were destroying families, not those deprived of the protections and symbolism of marriage, not those insulted, discriminated against, beaten, and killed. No, they were not humiliated; it was those who took to the streets to spit on them who were humiliated.
No one has ever said that Nicolas Sarkozy lacks chutzpah. The man who destroyed his party wants to be its savior. The man who remains under investigation for multiple cases of corruption and abuses of power wants to rescue the Republic. The man with three marriages wants to defend that sacred institution.
In practice, it seems unlikely that a right-wing government would turn back the clock on marriage equality. But then, given the relative modesty of the left’s achievements, there’s not that much to reverse. LGBTQ voters’ disappointment with this failure to deliver was not going to make them rush to vote for the right. But with these comments (and his appointment as campaign spokesman on Monday of a young man who’s spent his young career working for a series of notorious homophobes), Sarkozy has strongly signaled that LGBTQ people and their allies should mobilize for the left in 2017. While it is absurd to oppose homosexuals and families, Sarkozy is making it far too easy for homosexuals to oppose him.