In 2012, French homophobia got a new name: “Manif pour tous”, the protest for everyone, was the name of the demonstration that took place then. As Francois Hollande’s administration was working on same-sex marriage, a coalition of Catholics and nationalistic groups organised a protest. They said they were simply defending the family unit but promoted what is best described as a patriarchal version of family. We are not homophobic, they argued, we just want to protect the rights of children to have a mother and father. Ignoring scientific studies that said the opposite, they made the assumption that so-called “rainbow families” involve some form of sexual abuse. In Germany, a similar situation has arisen around a much debated word – Frühsexualisierung, or early sexual awareness – which implies that children in such families learn about the varieties of sexual identity too soon.
Liberal ideals such as those proposed by Germany’s radical 1968 generation, who moved the whole country leftwards, are the focus of right wing criticism in France. The writer Renaud Camus suggested that the native French population would be outnumbered, just because Muslim families had a higher birth rate. Author Michel Houellebecq, another prominent representative espousing anti-feminist ideas, went even further, going so far as to blame sexual equality for the flagging birth rate. The only real shelter that anxious neo-liberals would find was in the patriarchal-style family, the right-wingers suggested.
Within the Manif pour tous movement, which has made these kinds of sentiments more acceptable in polite company, feminist progress is generally described as totalitarian “gender theory”. This connection between criticism about neo-liberal insecurities and liberal attitudes toward sexuality is effective. In times of economic panic, “security” is an effective and emotional term, building upon the stronger desire for a stable life. The idea of returning to the old-fashioned model of a breadwinner and his dependents is a nostalgic dream. Still, the supporters of Manif pour tous were able to use this kind of rhetoric to have themselves categorized as an anti-establishment movement.
When it comes to Islam, the new right wingers help their argument by making pro-feminist arguments. So you get the likes of Marine le Pen [head of the extreme right wing Front National] complaining that in some parts of big French cities, women, gays and Jews are not safe. Words that you would not necessarily expect coming from the head of an organisation that is opposed to same-sex marriage, equality for all and occasionally espouses anti-Semitism quite openly. But there is clearly an agenda behind this: Arab men are portrayed as sexual predators and sexual violence is seen as a threat that only comes from outside the community.
In Germany, the [right-wing] Alternative for Germany party, also known as the AfD, has a lesbian woman, Alice Weidel, who lives with her female partner, at its head. In fact the so-called identitarian movement makes skilful use of its female members. Also in Germany, Melanie Schmitz has become a poster girl for far right extremism; she sings about her love for her homeland on social media, sometimes appearing as a wicked diva, other times as a coquette swinging a baseball bat.
In France, Marine le Pen presents herself as the face of a modern and reformed Front National. “The future is female,” the popular saying goes. And the right-wing has understood that only too well. Self-empowerment gives women the right to be proud housewives and mothers while feminism is defamed as a form of censure. The boot-wearing skinhead has been replaced by the flagship female nationalist and party jobs are given to women who reject ideas about gender equality but are happy to use feminist arguments to back their racist jibes.
Neo-reactionary forces are pushing this kind of oppositional behaviour because it has a far wider appeal. They know that you can start emotional arguments with all this talk about sex and gender, so sexuality is calculatedly instrumentalised. And the resentments that then arise from all this, are maliciously projected onto anyone who is somehow “other”, whether that’s sexual or religious.