French Santorum? A Conservative Politician Takes on the “Gay Lobby”

Let’s begin with a quiz. Call it “name that homophobe.” Consider each of the following quotes, and see what you can tell about the author:

Here’s the first: “I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts. As I would with acts of other, what I would consider to be, acts outside of traditional heterosexual relationships. And that includes a variety of different acts, not just homosexual. I have nothing, absolutely nothing against anyone who’s homosexual. If that’s their orientation, then I accept that. And I have no problem with someone who has other orientations. The question is, do you act upon those orientations? So it’s not the person, it’s the person’s actions. And you have to separate the person from their actions.”

And here’s the second: “I did not say that homosexuality was dangerous. I said that it was inferior to heterosexuality. If it was universalized, that would be dangerous for humanity … For me, their behavior is sectarian … I criticize behavior, and I say their behavior is morally inferior.”

Both remarks are by ultra-conservative politicians. Both are Catholic. Both see themselves as champions of traditional morality and Western civilization. But here’s the catch: one is American, the other French.

The first quote is by Rick Santorum, famous for having, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, once again placed birth control at the center of the American political debate. The second is by one Christian Vanneste, a member of the French parliament who belongs—for now—to President Sarkozy’s conservative party, the UMP.

Vanneste has been in politics, particularly at the local level, for over thirty years. Though he has more than one scandal to his credit, he recently spurred new controversy in the midst of the current presidential campaign. In early February, Vanneste was interviewed in a video that was posted to a news site. The topic was the threat posed by homosexuality to the French family. In his remarks, Vanneste referred to the claim that French homosexuals had been deported during the German occupation of 1940-1945 as a “legend.” Shortly afterwards, on February 15, the UMP’s general secretary, Jean-François Copé announced that Vanneste would resign from parliament and the party. Vanneste quickly shot back that he would do no such thing.

Their substance aside, Vanneste’s incendiary comments are a useful reminder that the French have their own Rick Santorums—ultraconservative, reactionary Christians who, while lying outside the political mainstream, nonetheless constitute a vocal minority, even if they have lack formal political organization and tend to shift around their allegiance, alternating between the center, the center-right, and the nationalist right.

Vanneste’s interview actually makes Santorum look like a paragon of moderation and tolerance. Speaking to Liberté Politique, a right-wing website (which proudly invites its visitors to sign a “Manifesto of Christian Voters”), Vanneste explained, while projecting an air of urbane confidence, the danger and outsized influence of the “gay lobby” in contemporary France. Not only is it highly influential, he asserts, but its power is actually a symptom of homosexuality’s defining trait: “narcissism,” which is, as he puts it, “le refus de l’autre”—the “refusal of the other.” To be a homosexual, he argues, is to be so self-absorbed that you deny the existence of the other sex. Moreover, most gay men, he avers, are attracted to men who remind them of their own youth—further proof that homosexual desire is ultimately just a form of navel-gazing.

For Vanneste, homosexuality is a deep moral failure, but it’s also dangerous: the “gay lobby” has brainwashed the public, persuading them, among other things, that there’s nothing wrong with gay marriage. They have promoted the “legend,” as he calls it, that French homosexuals were deported to German concentration camps during the Second World War. Vanneste does not deny that Nazi Germany persecuted homosexuals. He simply claims that they did not impose these policies on occupied France. The sole exceptions, he contends, were in the three eastern departments directly annexed by Germany, which were thus subject to German law rather than that of Vichy or German military government. If “one wanted to be mean,” he adds, one could also point out that a number of prominent collaborators were gay. Vanneste mentions in particular the fascist intellectual Abel Bonnard, who served Pétain as education minister and was widely rumored to be gay. With a twinkle in the eye and a smug smile, Vanneste notes that, in Resistance circles, Bonnard was often called “la gestapette.”

Vanneste has been saying this kind of thing for years. When he’s not being a reactionary politician, he teaches philosophy at a technical college, so it’s no surprise that he’s prone to enlist great thinkers into the service of his ultraconservative views. In a speech delivered on the floor of the National Assembly on December 7, 2004, Vanneste invoked Immanuel Kant to launch an attack on gay marriage: “A value judgment is universal only if it is founded on Kant’s categorical imperative: always acts according to a maxim that can be erected as a universal principle. Clearly, homosexuality cannot be, unless one wishes humanity to commit suicide!”

Denying the crimes of the twentieth century, particularly those of National Socialism, has long been a badge of honor on the French far right (think how Jean-Marie Le Pen has made a career of regularly testing the waters of Holocaust denial). The difference with Vanneste is that, technically, his historical claims may be accurate, as far as they go. Serge Klarsfeld, the French lawyer who has relentlessly pursued the perpetrators of the Holocaust and defended Nazism’s victims, has stated publicly that Vanneste got it right. “To demand his exclusion from the UMP on these grounds,” he opined, “seems to me completely ridiculous, as what he says is not inexact! The truth is what interests me and I will say that to the entire media, whether they be of the left or the right.” Klarsfeld’s motivation seem in part to ensure that the persecution of homosexuals be in no way made commensurable with the annihilation of Europe’s Jews.

Vanneste’s remarks have, predictably, met with outrage in France, including significant constituencies on the right. Indeed, one group that has targeted him in particular is an organization called GayLib, a “reflection circle” tied to the UMP. It is essentially the French equivalent of the Log Cabin Republicans.  GayLib’s goal is to fight for gay rights in what it calls a “liberal spirit,” free of any “sectarian” (communutarian) aims. On its website, it claims: “The greatest misunderstandings on the right relating to homosexuality result most likely from its ignorance of the issue, rather than from visceral homophobia.” Denouncing the crude and facile homophobia that is prevalent in French society, even among the political class, GayLib claims that its struggle is ultimately about defending the rights of the individual—a classically liberal position which, presumably, explains its members’ support for the UMP.

What, then, is at stake in the affaire Vanneste? Clearly, this is a rearguard action on the part of French conservatives, at a time when public opinion is moving in the opposite direction. Some polls suggest that as much as 63% of the French public favors same-sex marriage. Nine European countries have already legalized it.

But Vanneste’s inflammatory remarks also represent a right-wing attack on Sarkozy’s brand of politics. Sarkozy opposes gay marriage and last year the UMP voted down a bill that would have legalized it, even as they claim to oppose homophobia. But the underlying issue is that, even though he is in many respects the most right-wing president France has had in years, Sarkozy is seen by many as a megalomaniacal control freak—an uncultivated, resentful schemer obsessed with image, reputation, and money, fundamentally bereft of any deeply-held political or ideological conviction.

The view that France is slouching towards Gomorrah is embraced by many on the left, but as the Vanneste case indicates, it is also shared by the traditionalist, Catholic right. As he explains in his blog, Vanneste sees the control of GayLib and the “gay lobby” as proof that Sarkozy and the UMP have lost their moral rudder: “GayLib,” he writes, “an organization that favors homosexual proselytizing, has not ceased to demand my exclusion [from the party], and even denounced my nomination, yet this sectarian [communautrariste] and intolerant behavior, profoundly opposed the values that should inspire a movement that grew out of Gaullism, liberalism, and Christian democracy, was not in the least condemned by its leaders.” Philippe Bilger, a right-wing judge, notes that the affair has come at a time when conservative alternatives to Sarkozy have bowed out of the race: the Christian conservative and “family values” candidate, Christine Boutin (who ran in previous elections), has folded in favor of Sarkozy, as has Hervé Morin, the former defense minister and leader of the “New Center” party (which has indirect ties to Christian democracy).

What’s interesting is that these people want to stay in the UMP at all, when there’s clearly an alternative: Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN). I suspect part of the problem is that, while Vanneste and Le Pen share in many respects the same reactionary politics, the FN has always been torn between an arch Catholic element and the neo-pagan crowd—something that would presumably not sit well with Vanneste (who, nonetheless, has no qualms about electoral alliances with the FN). In many ways, Vanneste is simply a conservative of, say, the 1920s living in the early twenty-first century. But he is, nonetheless, a symptom of the cultural consequences of Sarkozyism—a regime in which ideology and principle, while often lacking in politics, seem in particular short supply.

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One response to “French Santorum? A Conservative Politician Takes on the “Gay Lobby”

  1. Free market advococates are called “libéraux” in French. Many of them are not liberal at all for societal issues. Conservative hard-liners keep trying to get the votes of their constituents by focusing on “religious values” while implementing economic policies which wreak havoc on the same values.Traditional families, for instance suffer when one partner has to go and work in a distant area after his or her factory has been closed due to a take-over bid …

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