Whatever they do, right-wing parties will lose out from the equal marriage debate

As the issue of same-sex unions finally turns into a parliamentary debate on both sides of the Channel, it is becoming more and more obvious that the Conservatives and their French counterparts have little to win and a lot to lose.

In the past few months, Britain and France have both faced the question of gay marriage – the French took to the streets, as it’s what they do best, and the Brits discussed it at lengths in pubs all around the country. What these countless conversations, columns and blog posts revealed was something quite peculiar: one side of the political compass had got caught in bitter infighting. For once, it wasn’t the Left.

When David Cameron announced in November that he was backing plans to allow gay marriage, he was faced with one of the biggest backlashes since the beginning of his leadership. The Daily Mail called it “the biggest Tory party rebellion in modern times”, but for once was barely exaggerating: by early December, 118 Tory MPs out of 303 had expressed their opposition to the proposal. A week later, a group of 19 cabinet ministers and other senior figures, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, wrote an open letter to the Sunday Telegraph, saying they were supporting the Prime Minister’s decision. Meanwhile, 64 per cent of voters are still against the proposed law.

Not that it’s any easier for the Union for a Popular Movement (the French leading centre-right party): their situation is fairly different, as they’re currently in opposition, but it’s far from simple. The official party line is to actively refuse any legalisation of same sex unions, but well known party members are heavily encouraged to keep their personal opinions to themselves. It is rumoured that 10% of MPs are actually in favour of it, but no one dares to speak out, which not only dampers the image of the party, but drove several important figures to leave.

Ex-MP Chantal Jouanno is one of them: when announcing that she was joining the UDI, a centre-right coalition created by Jean-Louis Borloo (himself a UMP renegade), she made it clear that she was pro-gay marriage and against her former party’s authoritarian stance on social issues. While seemingly anecdotal, this event tells a lot about the current state of the French (not-so) moderate right: though Sarkozy was criticised for flirting with the National Front’s extreme right, the recent election of the more radical Jean-Francois Coppé as a new leader shows a completely unashamed shift to the right. And this does not please everyone: the day he got elected, dozens of grassroots militants and (mainly young) voters cancelled their memberships, and posted pictures of their UMP cards cut in half on social media. By trying to reconnect with the people who chose the NF at the last elections, the UMP gradually losing the support of the centre and centre-right.

In a way, what’s currently going on in France is the opposite of what has been troubling the Conservatives recently. When he won the leadership bid, David Cameron promised to try his best to get rid of this ‘nasty party’ image, and regain some grounds on the centre. His strategy seemingly was to become more liberal on social issues regarding ethnic minorities or homosexuals, in order to appear like a more human and modern PM. This failed on several levels: when asked in October, 40 per cent of people thought that the Conservatives still were the “party of the rich”, and a third said that they were not sufficiently handling the NHS and other public services. Yet, the more right wing of the party feel that Cameron is not doing enough on traditional Tory issues - like the EU - and several backbenchers have threatened to defect to Ukip.

And things are not about to get any better: even if the Prime Minister and most of his cabinet ministers have publicly announced that they would vote in favour of a gay marriage law, well over a third of his MPs will oppose the legislation. Compared to the 80 per cent – at least - of Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs expected to support the bill, the Tories will find themselves on the wrong side of history. Remarkably, this still remains Cameron’s best case scenario: it’s still difficult to imagine that, even if he were to whip, or simply encourage his party to vote in favour, it would do much for his tarnished public image.

At least the UMP doesn’t even have to face a similar conundrum: with Jean-Francois Coppé having already admitted that he was not only against but “hostile” to the proposal, any sort of U-turn would be out of the question. Instead, the choice the UMP will have to make is whether to continue actively opposing the reforms – like they have been doing so far – or giving up and realising that the more vocal they are about the issue, they more irrelevant they’re beginning to appear. Seeing as the Socialist Party will almost unanimously vote for the legalisation of gay weddings, and that both centre-left and centre-right parties will give their MPs a free vote, it is almost certain to assume that the project will become law.  

So, in the great contest of right wing parties versus gay marriage, who will become the biggest losers? Will it be the Tories, when David Cameron finally realises that on top of being hated by the Liberal Democrats, Labour, and most of the public, he’s also managed to become out-of-touch from the core of his own party? Or will it be the UMP, when the ashamed moderate-right joins the UDI instead, and the bigoted hard-right defects to the National Front? 

Two men kiss during a demonstration in support of the legalisation of gay marriage [Photo: Alejandro Pagni/AFP/Getty Images]

Marie le Conte is a freelance journalist.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt