Sarkozy risks ‘gay vote’ over same-sex marriage stance
In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy promised gay voters a "civil union" equivalent to marriage. Five years later and no closer to the altar, where are his gay supporters? FRANCE 24 looks into the French gay vote, and its unexpected emergence on the far-right.
Some 13 years after France adopted the PACS civil union, gay rights campaigners are calling on France’s presidential candidates to grant full marriage and parenting rights to same-sex couples, and polls suggest that it could be a strategic mistake not to hear what they have to say.
Just days after he was elected in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy made a personal address to the French gay community via a recorded video. Speaking of “the difference between lust and love”, he promised to introduce a marriage-type contract which, save for adoption, would give same-sex couples the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts.
Five years on, the contract has long been forgotten. In an interview with Le Figaro Magazine this month, the president said that he had later “come to realise” that the plan had been an unconstitutional one, and that he was now decidedly against marriage equality. “In these troubled times,” he told the right-wing magazine, “we shouldn’t be clouding the image of such a crucial social institution.”
In response, the gay rights association affiliated to Sarkozy’s UMP party announced that it could no longer support the president in his campaign for re-election this spring. “He’s gone too far this time,” Emmanuel Blanc, leader of the GayLib association, told gay magazine Têtu. “If he was trying to put off gay voters, he couldn’t have done a better job.”
According to the latest polls, Sarkozy has done just that. A survey published by the CEVIPOF political research institute in January puts Sarkozy’s share of the gay vote at a measly 20%, while his Socialist rival François Hollande enjoys 53%.
“We no longer find Sarkozy credible,” explains Anne Boring, a former GayLib member who voted for Sarkozy in 2007. “Over the past five years, Sarkozy’s UMP party has done nothing at all for us. The Socialists on the other hand, have advanced enormously, and are now clearly in favour of marriage equality and granting parental rights to same-sex couples with children.”
‘Rather vote far-right than Sarkozy’
Boring represents a swathe of former UMP supporters who say they feel rejected by the ruling party’s failure to act on marriage inequality. But not all of them have shifted left. According to the CEVIPOF poll, over 17% of gay voters plan to vote for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in April, despite her party’s strict anti-gay marriage stance.
In December last year, Le Pen spoke out in defence of the gay community – something previously unheard of from her traditionally homophobic party. “There are some towns in France where it’s not a good thing to be […] homosexual,” she said in a speech on Islamism. Her ploy was an obvious one, but Boring believes that some gay voters may have fallen for it. “She’s playing on people’s fears of Islam as a menace to gay rights – people who feel threatened may indeed be tempted. These are the kind of people who are not interested in getting married, they’re only concerned about public safety as a homosexual.”
Le Pen has good reason to appeal to the ‘gay vote’. Some 3.2 million of the French electorate, or 6.5%, define themselves as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender). They outsize both practicing Muslim voters (at 5%), and practicing Catholics voters (4.5%).
Gay marriage above all else?
Bruno Vercken of the conservative Christian Democratic Party, which actively campaigns against same-sex marriage, argues that many gay voters will dismiss personal interests over economic concerns. “Right now, the real priority in France is not opening marriage and adoption up to homosexuals, it’s restoring confidence in the economy and politics,” he tells FRANCE 24. “I can understand the demand for gay marriage and adoption, even if I strongly disagree with it, but it is simply not the topic of the day, and there are plenty of gay people who recognise that and act on it.”
Benoit, a 32-year-old sales manager from Lille, is not one of them. He voted for Sarkozy in 2007 but will not be doing so this time round. Unable to marry his long-term Colombian partner, the couple separated in 2010 after the latter was forced to leave the country. “The rules are different for heterosexual couples,” he explains. “I still hope to get married and have children in the future. And while I strongly disagree with voting for your personal interests – in 2007 I clearly voted against mine – this is an issue which affects millions of people across the country.” Benoit, like many French voters irrespective of their sexuality, says he is disappointed with Sarkozy in general. “For me, voting for Hollande means an added bonus in terms of marriage equality.”
‘An embarrassment for France’
Boring says that unlike five years ago, the ‘gay vote’ has become one that encompasses not only gay voters themselves, but also concerned heterosexual voters. “LGBT people are making sure today that their friends and family know this is a major issue for them. Besides, so many European countries and other Western states have legalised gay marriage in the past five years, it’s starting to look embarrassing for France. People are questioning why we don’t have equal marriage rights like our neighbours.”
Opinion polls show steady support for same-sex marriage in France, with 64% of people saying they would like to see marriage equality between gay and straight couples, and 57% favouring parenting and adoption rights for same-sex couples. But in June 2011, UMP legislators voted en masse against a bill to legalise gay marriage, successfully blocking it from reaching the Senate or upper house.
If François Hollande wins the election, he has promised to make the issue a priority. “I’m pretty optimistic,” says Boring. “This is a major point in the Socialist party’s campaign platform – saying they’re a party who wants to promote equal rights. I’m confident that Hollande will use this as something which makes him really different from Sarkozy.”