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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.

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

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?