Homonationalism in French election campaign

2017-04-20 14:33

Marine Le Pen will likely become one of the two final presidential candidates in France’s presidential election, after the first round held this week. She is one of the ultra-right leaders who recently have talked about homosexuals and their rights in order to paint a picture of a ‘homo-tolerant’ West, threatened by Muslim mass immigration. Genus.se spoke to Anna-Maria Sörberg, author and freelance journalist, and Katharina Kehl, PhD student at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, about homonationalism in France and Sweden.

– Marine Le Pen communicated clearly when she took over the party leadership from her explicitly anti-Semitic and homophobic father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, that the rhetoric regarding certain minorities would change. They were partly welcomed in from the cold and were included in speech, says Anna-Maria Sörberg, author of the new Swedish book Homonationalism.

Marine Le Pen’s homonationalistic positioning

Sörberg is referring to a well-known quote by Le Pen, leader of the National Front, in which she says that it has become ‘difficult to be a woman, a Jew, gay, even French and white’ in France and thus distances herself from her father. A father who, among other things, put the blame of AIDS on gay people.

Anna-Maria Sörberg describes homonationalism as a widespread phenomenon which involves several social processes. It is increasingly used by far-right parties, such as the National Front in France and the Pim Fortuyn List and Geert Wilder’s PVV in the Netherlands, which tend to take advantage of gay issues to convey a picture of a nation under threat (usually from mass immigration, a multicultural society or Muslims in particular). Homonationalism can also be discerned in all the images currently used to promote the story of the West as fully accepting, or even supporting, homosexuality. A necessary condition for the emergence of homonationalism, says Anna-Maria Sörberg, has been the depoliticisation of gay issues in the neoliberal economy through ‘pink money’ and exploitation of the gay market.

Sexual orientation an isolated issue in homonationalism

Anna-Maria Sörberg, photo by Alexander Mahmoud

Homonationalism is mainly about gay issues specifically.

– Although Donald Trump recently tried to spell his way through all the letters in LGBT, and even Q, in connection with his first speech as Republican presidential candidate a week after the Orlando massacre, he mainly alluded to homosexuals. The other parts of the LGBTQ spectrum are considered too politically charged and too entrenched in the despicable leftist/feminist/antiracist project.

The homonormativity and lack of intersectional perspectives inherent in the prevailing homonationalism is something that needs to be challenged, according to Anna-Maria Sörberg.

Homonationalists see sexual orientation as an isolated issue recognised through a set of separate rights and not as part of a social structure. This is a perspective that often attracts people who belong to the privileged in other power structures.

– Homonationalists see sexual orientation as an isolated issue recognised through a set of separate rights and not as part of a social structure. This is a perspective that often attracts people who belong to the privileged in other power structures, who benefit for example from being white, male or able. But the struggle for LGBTQ rights needs to be based on intersectional perspectives in order to maximise its reach, and needs to be linked to a project aiming to redistribute power structures, not preserve them, says Anna-Maria Sörberg.

Links to femonationalism

There is also a connection between the femonationalism and homonationalism, meaning the hijacking of feminism and the Western gender equality, that not least Marine Le Pen has been good at picking up. Le Pen has for example quoted feminist giant Simone de Beauvoir, she often tries to portray herself as a ‘modern mother’ and claims to be the only politician who is fighting for the rights of women against Islamism.

– It’s partly the same idea, although the backgrounds differ. Homonationalism wants to “save the gay” from what’s regarded as a Muslim threat. The story about “saving woman” from “the other” has an even longer colonialist history. “Saving the gay” is part two of that discourse, says Anna-Maria Sörberg.

A way to create the menacing others

Katharina Kehl is a PhD student at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. In her PhD thesis, she investigates how sexual rights, sexuality and gender identity are used to include some people in the image of Europe and Sweden and exclude others. She has studied Pride Järva, which was arranged in the north of Stockholm in 2015 and 2016 by Jan Sjunnesson. Sjunnesson is an active member of the anti-immigration and culturally conservative Sweden Democrats. He has also been editor-in-chief of the party magazine, Samtiden, and currently writes for Avpixlat, a leading Swedish social-conservative website. In particular, she has analysed the speech Sjunnesson gave in Rinkeby – a Stockholm suburb known for its cultural diversity and immigrant majority – in 2016.

– It is very clear how the populist right is using LGBTQ rights to create threatening others, who are often Muslim, but always racialised. It is an effective way to construct and reproduce Swedishness in contrast to the Muslim threat. In his speech, Sjunnesson conveys an image of Stockholm suburbs as a dangerous environment, in particular for someone who is blond, “ethnically Swedish” and homosexual. According to him, this type of person is not safe there at night, says Katharina Kehl.

Takes advantage of Swedish self-image

Katharina Kehl

There is some international research on the phenomenon of homonationalism, but Katharina Kehl sees Sweden as particularly interesting considering the Swedish self-image of being a gender equal and tolerant country. There is a tradition of ‘state feminism’, a strong LGBTQ movement and legislation supporting same-sex marriage and sexual and reproductive rights. This means there is an existing self-image that the populist movement can take advantage of, although the Sweden Democrats has a history of being opposed to LGBT rights.

– Sjunnesson constructs an image of immigrants as people born and raised in cultures with homophobic values, which they bring with them and can never revise. In contrast, he promotes the view that “native”, white Swedes inevitably are tolerant of homosexuals. Not only does this resemble the colonial narrative that the Middle East and North Africa are lagging behind Europe. The notion that people are so strongly shaped by where they have their roots reflects a history of scientific racism.

Pride Järva, who drew a crowd of perhaps 15–20 people and at least as many counter-demonstrators, was an event that the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights (RFSL) and the Stockholm Pride organisers opposed. Jan Sjunnesson and the other event hosts called it a betrayal rooted in political correctness.

– According to the populist right, RFSL and the political left do not have the courage to talk about the problems associated with immigration. Therefore, they need to step in as guardians of homosexuals. From having described homosexuality as a disease and a threat to society, the Sweden Democrats are picking up this stuff to put one minority against another. LGBTQ people get to serve as the nation’s border.

Successful homonationalist message in France

In France, Marine Le Pen has been successful with her homonationalist message. According to an opinion poll from 2016, close to 40 per cent of all polled men who had married a same-sex spouse were intending to vote for the National Front.

– Many right-wing conservative homosexuals, in particular men, consider the fight for the right to marriage the last item on the sexuality policy agenda. When the issue was settled in France, many people in France felt that the goal had been reached. And many people seem to regard themselves as the new citizens in a national community, says Anna-Maria Sörberg.

But it is a fragile community. There was strong opposition to the legalisation of same-sex marriages in France and cultural and family conservative movements mobilised intense homophobic resistance for several years before the law was finally passed in 2013. Those sentiments remain largely intact and keep simmering beneath the surface, not least in the National Front.

Such a fragile right may perhaps make some people jump on the bandwagon and help mobilise against the ”new” others, the migrants.

– Many homosexuals have seen and encountered the vast mobilisation against same-sex marriages and can probably still smell it. So when they finally get invited to be a full citizen, some of the fear is likely to remain. Such a fragile right may perhaps make some people jump on the bandwagon and help mobilise against the ”new” others, the migrants.

Focus on same-sex marriage a cause of homonationalism

In her book, Anna-Maria Sörberg addresses the struggle for same-sex marriages and how it has contributed to homonationalism in countries where marriage is highlighted as the most important LGBTQ issue.

– This is an issue that has been assigned symbolic value in the conservative camp and where the right to marriage is used in the homonationalist contexts as the ultimate proof that “we’re done, let’s instead defend ourselves against the others”.

A depoliticisation of LGBTQ rights

Katharina Kehl mentions a group within the Sweden Democrats, SD-LGBT, that besides expressing the Islamophobia typical of contemporary right-wing populism has become known for rejecting Pride as a phenomenon.

It implies a depoliticisation of LGBTQ rights.

– According to this group, which does not want to include queers in its name as it implies a questioning of norms, sexuality is something that should be a private matter. People’s choice of who they want to be intimate with should not be anybody else’s business, and it should be kept out of the public space. It implies a depoliticisation of LGBTQ rights.

Pride Järva should be seen in a broader international context, says Katharina Kehl. Jan Sjunnesson has claimed to be inspired by the Dutch homonationalism. In addition, he invited Milo Yiannopolous as keynote speaker in 2016, at that time employed by Trump-friendly Breitbart News and a spokesperson for the Gays for Trump organisation. But Yiannopolous cancelled his participation, supposedly for security reasons. Instead, Sjunnesson himself took the podium for the keynote message.

Author Anneli Tillberg and Jimmy Sand, translated by Debbie Axlid
Photo Jérémy Günther Heinz Jähnick
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