Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

France's Catholic Moment

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

France's Catholic Moment

Article excerpt

Since France definitively adopted a republican form of government in 1870, ardent Catholics have rarely occupied the Élysée Palace. It's arguable that only two such people have been president of France: Marshal Patrice de MacMahon (1873-1879) and General Charles de Gaulle (1959-1969). Now, in our supposed secular age, there is a strong possibility that France may elect another devout Catholic as its president: François Fillon.

The 2017 presidential candidate of France's mainstream center-right party Les Républicains, Fillon isn't shy about speaking publicly about his Catholic faith. That includes how it shapes his decidedly conservative views on issues like euthanasia and his personal opposition to abortion. Even more remarkable, however, is that many cathos (slang for practicing Catholics in France) worked openly to secure Fillon's victory over his rivals Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé during their party's primaries.

Public and direct activism of this sort by Catholics hasn't been characteristic of contemporary French politics. Even as serious a Catholic as Charles de Gaulle kept his faith in the background of his public life. Certainly, de Gaulle never hid his Catholicism. During World War II, the general relied heavily on fervent Catholics such as Admiral Thierry d'Argenlieu (a Carmelite monk) and General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque (a prewar Action française supporter) while leading Free France. Several practicing Catholics such as Edmond Michelet (today, a candidate for beatification) served as ministers throughout de Gaulle's ten-year presidency.

Nevertheless, de Gaulle never forgot that many French Catholics-including Catholic bishops- had supported Vichy after France's catastrophic defeat in 1940. Nor did de Gaulle support France's postwar Christian Democrat party, the Mouvement Républicain Populaire. This was partly because de Gaulle resented the MRP's backing for what he regarded as the Fourth Republic's flawed constitution. Yet his reservations about the MRP also owed something to de Gaulle's sensitivities about Catholics participating as Catholics in political life. In his 2011 book Charles le Catholique, Gérard Bardy stresses that de Gaulle wanted to avoid being perceived as compromising the republic's commitment to laïcité-the notion that the state should be neutral about religion and free from religious influences-so much so that he usually refrained from receiving Communion when attending Mass in any official capacity.

So what has changed? How has it come to pass that movements of young and politically active Catholics such as the Sens Commun were able to openly mobilize center-right voters to support the forthright Catholic Fillon against the self-described catholique agnostique Juppé during the primary runoff? Why did Fillon, Juppé, and Sarkozy all consider themselves obliged to appeal directly to practicing Catholics during the primaries? Is France experiencing what might be called its own Catholic moment?

As with most developments at the confluence of religion and politics, immediate concerns and long-term factors are at work. Among the former is deep angst throughout French society about Islam, something accentuated by Islamist terrorism and the spread of Muslim-dominated "no-go" areas for non-Muslims throughout France. As the Catholic intellectual Pierre Manent demonstrated in his best-selling Situation de la France (2015), many French citizens are consequently asking one of those existential questions beloved by the French: What gives France its distinct character? Some, including many nonbelievers, have concluded that France really cannot be understood without Catholicism, and that the legacy of the Enlightenment and French Revolution has not provided much of a bulwark against creeping Islamization. Fr. Jacques Hamel's brutal murder by two Islamist terrorists in July 2016 underscored this in a particularly poignant way for many French Catholics, and no doubt for Jews, Protestants, and nonbelievers as well. …

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