BERLIN — The far right’s drubbing in the French election exposed the biggest challenge for European nationalists: convincing voters that they are no longer a bunch of intolerant haters. To argue that point, welcome to the political stage Alice Weidel, the improbable new voice of Germany’s far right.
In person, the cardigan-wearing former investment banker eschews fiery rhetoric in favor of almost academic answers. But there’s something else that distinguishes her from the populist pack. After days spent campaigning for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the 38-year-old lesbian goes home to her partner and two sons.
“My election and my high acceptance within the party show that, contrary to public perception, my party is tolerant,” said Weidel, one of two politicians elected last month to lead the AfD into Germany’s national elections in September.
Weidel’s rise is the latest expression of a growing, if seemingly ironic, trend. In their policies, nationalist movements in the West often oppose full gay rights, including same-sex marriage. But many such parties are increasingly trying to portray themselves as more tolerant than their images suggest, in part by making space for gay men and lesbians.
This, observers say, amounts to an attempt to broaden their appeal — not only to gays but also to voters who view such movements as overtly bigoted and exclusionary.
Weidel “is a signpost; she is there to say, ‘Look, we’re not only old, angry white men,’ ” said Cornelius Adebahr, a fellow at Carnegie Europe.
The efforts in Europe echo the moment last year when Donald Trump held up a rainbow flag, a symbol of the gay community, at a presidential campaign stop in Colorado. In doing so, he took a page from far-right Dutch firebrand Geert Wilders, who has for years portrayed his campaign against Muslim immigration as a way to protect gays from bashing by religious zealots.
Opponents, however, call such efforts disingenuous — optics that do not gel with nationalist voting patterns, actions and internal musings on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. In France, for instance, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, despite equivocating on the issue at first, in February included a repeal of same-sex marriage — legalized in France in 2013 — in her campaign pledges.
More recently, however, gays have been promoted to the party’s highest ranks. National Front leaders Florian Philippot and Steeve Briois were outed by French journalists in recent years. Nevertheless, Philippot is now Le Pen’s right-hand man, and two weeks ago, Briois was named the party’s interim chief.
Le Pen’s views are a far cry from those of her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. In the 1980s, the elder Le Pen — an anti-Semite who referred to the Nazi gas chambers as a “detail” of history — was as outspoken about gays as he was about Jews. During the AIDS crisis, he advocated for the creation of concentration camps for those infected with HIV.
Despite her massive loss, Marine Le Pen’s different strategy may be gradually working. Although the party opposes same-sex marriage, a 2015 poll showed that support for her party among gay couples rose from 19 percent in 2012 to 32 percent in 2015 — right after the November terrorist attacks in Paris.
“If you look at the history of the National Front, it was always a homophobic party — but with lots of homosexuals,” said Frédéric Martel, author of “The Pink and the Black: Homosexuals in France since 1968.”
Enter Germany’s Weidel, who last month was selected to help lead the AfD and is now tasked with helping the party avoid political implosion.
Founded in 2013 on the back of German angst over bailouts for Greece, the AfD morphed during the refugee crisis into an anti-immigrant nationalist movement that has opposed the building of new mosques and advocates leaving the euro currency union. Should the AfD crash and burn following losses by nationalists in the Netherlands and France, it would amount to a massive setback for the far right in Europe.
After strong gains last year in local elections, the AfD has taken a severe hit in recent months, with its poll numbers falling to single digits. Its problems came after explosive remarks by one of its prominent politicians, Björn Höcke, who appeared to play down Germany’s World War II guilt and Adolf Hitler’s atrocities.
Besides turning off potential supporters, his comments fueled a tug of war between moderates and hard-liners for the soul of the party. Caught up in the dispute, Frauke Petry, the face of the party, abruptly announced last month that she would step aside as its lead candidate.
In her place, the AfD elected two replacements: the more moderate Weidel and a hard-liner, Alexander Gauland, 76. Weidel concedes that it was an attempt to appease both sides of the movement.
Since then, some of her fiercest critics have been German gay groups. Markus Ulrich, spokesman for the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany, dismissed Weidel’s election as a “clever strategy” meant to distract from the AfD’s hard-line platform.
“Does the AfD stand for equal rights? For respect? For diversity? Definitely not,” Ulrich said.
Yet Weidel’s appeal also stems from a characteristic that has helped her rise in the AfD: She is not a traditional politician. An economist, she graduated best in class at the University of Bayreuth and earned her doctorate in 2011. She worked in China for six years and speaks Mandarin. Her day job is consulting for start-ups.
In an interview with The Washington Post, she said she saw no contradiction between her party’s stated stance in favor of “traditional families” with “a father and mother” and her life with her female partner and children. Germany offers civil partnerships, she said, and she and her party remain in favor “of keeping the status quo.”
The pushback within the AfD against a lesbian as one of its leading voices, meanwhile, has been surprisingly muted. Some far-right websites have jabbed at Weidel. But for the most part, even fervent nationalists in the party appear to be backing her.
“We are fostering traditional values but aren’t ostracizing anyone,” said AfD politician Andreas Gehlmann, who once heckled a colleague from another party speaking about gay issues. “We also have black people in the AfD.”
Weidel condemns AfD politicians such as Höcke. Although she was initially attracted to the party because of its anti-euro stance, she also fiercely defends its anti-immigrant position — particularly against the decision by Chancellor Angela Merkel to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees, many fleeing the Syrian war.
She says that neither she nor her party is “anti-Islamic.” But she described some conservative Muslims as “enemies of freedom” and said that those who do not integrate pose a risk to German culture.
She generally dismisses the criticism by fellow gays and lesbians.
“I was labeled by a gay magazine as the most dangerous homosexual in Germany,” Weidel said. “I called up my partner and said, ‘In Germany, especially in Berlin, we cannot show up at gay parties anymore.’ She was like, ‘We’ve never done that, and we won’t do that,’ so I have no problem.”
James McAuley in Paris, Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin and Annabell Van den Berghe in Brussels contributed to this report.