With both the mainstream left and right teaming up to defeat the far-right Front national‘s two most outspoken leaders in Sunday’s second (and final) round of regional elections, party president Marine Le Pen, in France’s far northern region, and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, in France’s southeast, it was never likely that anyone from the Le Pen family tree would have won control of any of France’s regional councils.
Indeed, after the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) universally withdrew from the two (of six) regions where the Front national (FN, National Front) led after the December 6 first-round results, it made a second-round victory of either Le Pen very unlikely.
Socialist unity fell short in three northeastern regions, where the Front national came far closer to winning:
- In Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, the Socialists maintained their hold on the region, but only narrowly — with 34.7% to 32.9% for the center-right Républicains (Republicans) to 32.4% for the Front national.
- In Centre-Val de Loire, again, the Socialists won 35.4% to 34.6% for the Republicans and 30.0% for the Front national.
But it was Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine where the Front national‘s chances of picking up a region were deemed strongest. The new region cobbles together three very different smaller regions, much to the disdain of the wealthier Alsatians, lumped into a ‘super region’ with the poorer, industrial Lorraine. (And indeed, the Front national did most poorly within the districts of the former region of Alsace, picking up larger margins in Lorraine).
Florian Philippot, one of the FN’s brightest rising stars, won the first round with 36.1% to the center-right’s 25.8%. In the second round, however, Philippot still won just 36.1% while the center-right consolidated its support (and a wide swath of the center-left and those in the electorate who didn’t bother to vote in the first round) to a whopping 48.4%, easily taking the region.
The surge in turnout among moderate voters in opposition to the Front national‘s first-round success stopped Philippot — as it did the party’s other candidates on Sunday. Still, without that shift, and a generous shift of left-wing voters to the Républicains, Philippot today might be the only Front national figure leading one of France’s 13 councils.
In contrast to the party’s self-cultivated status as an outside force with disdain for the French political elite, the 34-year-old Philippot is a graduate of the École nationale d’administration, as elite an institution as exists in France today. Since July 2012, he has been the Front national’s vice president, in charge of strategy and communication. But he’s really been the chief strategist to Marine Le Pen as she’s worked for the detoxification — or dédiabolisation — of her party, so much so that one of Le Pen’s former foreign policy advisers, Aymeric Chauprade, an MEP, left the party arguing that Philippot had created a ‘Stalinist’ environment among the party’s top guard.
There’s just one problem. For a party with a historical ambivalence to France’s gays and lesbians, Philippot is a not-quite-openly gay man.
Closer, a French tabloid, published photos of him in Vienna at the end of 2014 with a man — purportedly his boyfriend. Though he and Le Pen both argued that the media’s intrusion in Philippot’s private life was an outrage, neither exactly denied anything that Closer revealed about Philippot’s sexual orientation. Moreover, Sébastien Chenu, an openly gay candidate for the Front national in local elections last spring, casually noted at the time that his party was the only one with a female leader and an openly gay deputy. Other well-known gay men are also Le Pen boosters, including models Matthieu Chartraire and Bruno Clavet.
It wasn’t so long ago that Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s founder, dismissed homosexuality as a ‘biological and social anomaly,’ and in the 1980s and 1990s called for the forced segregation of HIV/AIDS victims in France. His controversial views were hardly contained to LGBT rights, though. His sympathy for Vichy France, dismissal of the Holocaust and other anti-Semitic views and disdain for Charles de Gaulle, virtually the founding father of France’s current Fifth Republic all made the party toxic — even when he unexpectedly placed second in the 2002 presidential election.
His daughter’s detoxification efforts have purged not only her father’s most repugnant views, but her father himself. Marine Le Pen ousted him from the party four months ago.
That doesn’t mean that the Front national is exactly a champion of multiculturalism. Critics argue that its fierce anti-immigrant stand is anti-Muslim. Moreover, the party officially calls for repealing the same-sex marriage law enacted in 2013 by president François Hollande and the Socialists. Though Marine Le Pen has emphasized euroscepticism and economic populism in the depressed north, her niece has continued to emphasize her grandfather’s Catholic-influenced social conservatism in southern France.
That has led some of it party’s more homophobic figures to complain about a ‘gay cabal’ infiltrating its leadership:
In its January 2nd issue, Minute claimed that the lack of a decision on the part of the FN was the result of the power of a “homosexual lobby”. According to the extreme right-wing weekly, the moment Marine Le Pen took office coincided with the arrival of a swathe of new gay members (which Minute finds regrettable). Sociologist Nicolas Lebourg, an expert on the French far right, even compares Marine Le Pen to the French-Italian diva Dalida, “adored by her gay entourage”.
Nevertheless, Le Pen’s often anti-Muslim, hard-right populism seems to be attracting France’s gay vote in disproportionate measure, with one poll earlier this year showing her winning 26% of the vote in Paris’s homosexual population and just 16% among the heterosexual population. That may explain, in part, why Le Pen has often downplayed her opposition to same-sex marriage (in contrast to many members of the more ‘mainstream’ Républicains, who voted against the marriage legislation in 2013), even while her niece has railed in favor of traditional marriage.
In an alternative world, the Front national‘s dédiabolisation might have taken a turn for the liberal — a party with the ability to reform France’s sclerotic, tired institutions that both Hollande and his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, failed to reshape, all while showing that it can also be socially liberal in the best of the French republican tradition. Even if it continues to take its characteristically wary line on migration.
Instead, Marine Le Pen has staked her 2017 presidential hopes (and, for that matter, her 2012 presidential hopes) on a starkly anti-EU platform that embraces populist policies that would enshrine statist approaches to economic policy, much to the dismay of France’s most impressive economists. Meanwhile, she’s continued to have it both ways on LGBT rights — drawing just enough cover from gay men like Philippot and Chenu to telescope her cosmopolitan views, while letting her party continue to advocate for far less compromising views.