By JOHN BURKE
(Editor’s Note: John Burke is a Catholic journalist based in England.)
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PARIS — There are six Sunday Masses, all in the old Latin rite, at Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet, a classical pile almost within sight of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Two blocks away stand propagandists (the Lefebvrist priests have warned them off) with royalist and other right-wing pamphlets.
Such incidents have long lent themselves to a myth, promoted equally by liberal Catholics and secular left-wingers, that the St. Pius X Society (SSPX) and the National Front (Front National) were ultra-reactionary allies. In fact, the political preferences of the French, whether baptized or not, have always been far more complicated, but there is now an element of truth just when presidential and legislative elections are looming.
The reason is that France’s very identity is at risk from Islam, immigration, and internationalism, while terrorism and unemployment have discredited the leftist coalition. With the Socialists’ popularity put at just 7 percent in the polls, President François Holland is breaking with the custom of standing for a second term. Among Catholics, support for the left is reckoned to have slumped from 35 percent back in 1981 to 16 percent.
Everything suggests that the presidential run-off in May will be between two veterans of the right who know they need the broadly Christian vote.
One is Marine Le Pen, who co-chairs an alliance of nationalistic parties in the European Parliament where the Front forms the largest French bloc. In 2011 she supplanted her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a Catholic from Brittany, who had founded the party out of extreme and populist elements in 1972. He got into the second round once during five bids to take the presidency, and the daughter then took 18 percent of votes during her attempt in 2012.
The grouping of conservative and center parties has picked François Fillon, a Catholic family man and veteran of the Republicans (Parti Républicain) whose previous incarnations had the initials UDR, RPR, and UMP. A one-time party leader, Fillon came up through local government and held five ministerial posts before being prime minister from 2007 to 2012.
His unprecedented 55 percent of primary votes is credited to new Catholic members.
All this suggests shifting attitudes among believers and nonbelievers — that is how the French classify themselves — who were long conditioned by the unhappy history of relations between the Church and a state that has been reconstituted 15 times since 1792. It continues to spawn political parties, factions, and lobbies.
Because churchmen were privileged under the ancient monarchy, all the faithful were persecuted during the atheistic French Revolution. Napoleon’s cynical concordat of 1801 was followed by a monarchical and clerical revival, but once France became a republic again, a socialist-liberal government subordinated the Church in 1905, nationalizing all its real estate. Yet after Germany defeated France in 1940, the Vichy puppet-government made concessions to Catholics, such as returning land at Lourdes, to gain their support.
The educational curriculum emphasizes that France remains a secular republic, in which all religions are private and equal, although the law of 1905 has been invoked in recent years (partly by Fillon) to curb Muslim expression. Catholics have had to accept legislation favoring anything from Freemasonry and divorce to abortion and homosexuality, while any parents wanting a religious education for their children must fund their own schools.
Today, however, aggressive agnosticism is replaced by Muslim militancy that has led to 591 churches’ suffering malicious damage in 2014 alone, and more atrocities may follow the assassination of a priest outside Rouen where St. Joan of Arc was burnt in 1431. Incidentally, she is a patriotic heroine for the Front, although the French Republic’s symbol is a revolutionary peasant girl dubbed Marianne, often portrayed turning away from a church.
Yet there is a renewal of religious consciousness among even those who merely call themselves Catholic in social surveys that also record 500,000 Protestants and five million Muslims.
There are no accurate figures for belief, especially as the French bishops’ conference (CEF) ceased issuing figures of Baptisms after they had slumped from 449,531 in 1992 to 290,282 ten years later — hardly three percent of all births. A realistic estimate is that 44 million out of France’s 66 million inhabitants have a Catholic background, and that includes just over half of the two and one-fourth million Parisians. Even so, barely one Frenchman in four attends Mass at all, and of 55,752 remaining churches, mostly owned by the state, 10,000 face closure.
One quarter of all Catholics are aged between 35 and 49, but senior citizens account for almost half of those who practice. Sunday regulars are put at a mere three million, and there are claims that most attend the Tridentine rite which is offered by more than the 170 Lefebvrists.
The Institute of Christ the King has 34 priests in France, where the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter uses 65 centers for the old Mass, and then there are the Benedictines at Fontgombault, Barroux, Randol, Triors. . . .
There is more clarity about the Catholic vote. A survey by Opinion Way, published at the end of 2013 in La Vie Catholique, found that one churchgoer in ten, under the age of 35, had close contacts with the Front. This compared with only 1 percent of Catholic senior citizens. At the same time, one-third of practicing Catholics had a good opinion of Marine Le Pen, although she is a double divorcee.
During the county elections of March 2015, when the Front took 25 percent of the votes, it seems that these included 16 percent from Catholics or 9 percent from practicing ones. On the other hand, a little over half of all Catholics, or 69 percent of regular churchgoers, may have supported the traditional conservative or centrist parties which collected only one-third of all French votes.
Politicians For Jesus
In the equivalent of gubernatorial elections, the Front then got its best result ever with almost seven million votes amounting to 27 percent of the electorate, although the system robbed it of any regional control. This surge is not just a reaction to the Islamic threat, but also loss of sovereignty that earlier led 55 percent of the entire electorate to reject (though in vain) the constitution of the European Union.
It has spurred various political leaders to hark back to when France was called the elder daughter of the Church, starting with ex-President Chirac whose memoirs include praise for Gregorian plainchant. Nicolas Sarkozy stated, “The roots of France are essentially Christian” when visiting the Vatican as president in 2007, repeating this during his failed bid to re-enter the race.
Among the other two losers, a former prime minister, Alain Juppé, did a bulk email to Catholics, while Bruno Le Maire, an ex-minister, published his letter to the bishops. Curiously, all but Sarkozy remain ambivalent regarding Muslims, with Fillon himself publishing a book about defeating Islam, having been the first prime minister to inaugurate one of France’s 2,052 mosques in 2010.
Yet even Bernard Cazeneuve, the latest prime minister in the demoralized government, has been moved to say, “Socialism has its roots in the values of the Gospel.” Doubtless, they all remember Henry IV’s historic one-liner: “Paris is worth a Mass!” Deserting his Huguenot brethren, he converted so that the Catholic majority would have him as king.
Another telltale sign is that certain Socialists such as Dominique Potier, a Catholic who abstained when Christiane Taubira got homosexual partnerships legalized, have visited the parliamentary chaplaincy, founded in 1995 by the late Cardinal Lustiger. Since its third incumbent, Fr. Laurent Stalla Bourdillon, was appointed in 2012, he has met at least 200 politicians — out of 577 in the lower house and 348 in the Senate.
These discreet encounters take place at what is named the Pastoral Service for Political Studies (SPEP), opposite the society church of Saint Clotilda and a short walk from the Bourbon Palace housing the national assembly. Most of them are from the right such as Philippe Gosselin, a Republican and Catholic who voted against Taubira, but backed Juppé in the primary.
Stalla Bourdillon does not deny meeting Marion Maréchal Le Pen, the Catholic niece of the Front’s leader and granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, himself a product of the Jesuits.
Maréchal is one of only two Frontists in the lower house (two more are in the Senate), her colleague being Gilbert Collard who is among several Freemasons to join the party.
Educated by traditional Dominican nuns, Maréchal is crucial to obtaining Catholic support. She was propelled into Parliament in 2012 with the backing of a million demonstrators against the Taubira bill, subsequently approved by 331 votes to 225.
She was involved in marches by Manif pour tous (satirizing “marriage pour tous,” it means demo for all), from which 9,000 activists broke away as Sens Commun (common sense) in 2013 to become a moral ginger group among the 240,000 members of the Republican Party.
The next sensation came when Maréchal was invited to address the Catholic summer school at Sainte-Baume in 2015. Amid protests from some of his 130 fellow bishops, Dominique Rey of Fréjus-Toulon explained that the Front was a big force between Nice and Marseilles (immigration is highest here), while the Dominican organizer, François Régis, pointed out that it was an all-party event.
The national media speculated that the Church was dropping its opposition to a party previously excoriated for racism, but the French Episcopal Conference’s spokesman, Vincent Neyron, merely replied that the Front was a legal political organization. It is significant, however, that the bishops’ booklet with electoral advice for Catholics alludes to “patriotism” and “nationality”; mentions “Christian tradition”; and acknowledges the violent side of Islam.
There is a warning, however, from France’s oldest Catholic newspaper, La Croix, which reckons that one-quarter of the faithful now support the Front. It sent out to 74,000 households the reprint of a Jesuit study, urging Catholics to “reflect, understand, and act.”
Marine Le Pen’s partner, Louis Aliot, who is the Front’s vice-president, dismissed La Croix as left-wing, saying, “I am a baptized and believing Catholic.” Gilles Lebreton, one of 24 FN members of the European Parliament, said, “Like the Church, the FN defends the model of the traditional family, constituted in the union of a man and a woman.”
Fillon Evades Issues
This too is the view of Fillon with five children by his Welsh wife, Penelope, who also happens to be a municipal councilor in Solesmes. Both have attended Mass at the abbey so famous for plainchant, but she seems to have avoided joining Mayors for Childhood, a lobby of 12,585 local councilors who are campaigning not to officiate at homosexual weddings.
Franck Meyer, the Democratic Independent mayor of Sotteville-sur-le-Val, claims the total support of 20,000 elected officials and there is a class action by 146 of them, invoking liberty of conscience, before both the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations’ human rights committee. They are represented by François-Henri Briard, a Catholic jurist who has many friends in American legal and defense circles.
Over half of France’s 213,000 councilors are now on the right, including 1,496 in the Front. But the most prominent Republican member of Mayors for Childhood is probably Yannick Moreau, one of several Catholics from Brittany; on entering the French Parliament, he called for Christiane Taubira to be replaced as justice minister. Remaining mayor of Olonne-sur-Mer in the westerly Vendée, he also tried to ban the Euro-flag from his townhall.
Fillon is pro-Europe, but he did vote against Taubira, and also promised Sens Commun to amend the right of homosexual couples to adopt children. On the other hand, instead of keeping strictly to Catholic ethics, his record is confused. As the prime minister under Sarkozy in 2009, he cut funding for Planned Parenthood, but reversed this, following protests.
In 2013 he voted against embryonic research, but ignored further legislation toward it. In 2014, he was absent while abortion was being extended, and in 2015 he voted with the camp for euthanasia. All this makes him less ideal than one of his defeated rivals, Jean-Frédéric Poisson, a royalist who goes to Fontgombault for retreats.
Sympathetic toward Maréchal, this Christian-Democrat also said Trump was preferable to Clinton. Like him, there are Catholic ex-ministers in Fillon’s own party, such as Christian Jacob and Laurent Wauquiez, who have vowed to amend or repeal Taubira if the right wins the legislative elections in June.
Meanwhile, the Front has suffered a major split. Maréchal wants to campaign outright against the state funding of abortions whereas her aunt continues to make equivocal statements on the entire subject, although she has three children. Marine Le Pen’s right-hand man, Florian Philippot, has branded Maréchal as “isolated,” while himself being under attack after Closer magazine published photos of him and his alleged boyfriend in Vienna.
The infiltration by a homosexual lobby is criticized by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who still has a seat in the European Parliament but keeps a foothold in his own party merely as honorary president. Meanwhile the Catholic wing of the Front is rallying to Maréchal. Most of these members are among the 85,000 in its youth organization, the largest of any party.
Some will also belong to Civitas, the Catholic youth movement founded in Brittany but led by Alain Escada from Belgium, with Fr. Régis de Cacqueray, who has headed SSPX in France, as its chaplain. On the other hand, Civitas demonstrations in Paris and the Breton capital, Rennes, against a blasphemous play in 2011 were backed by 40 politicians in the UMP, including Lionnel Lucca who represents Alpes-Maritime.
Support also came from the tiny Movement for France (MPF) whose aristocratic leader, Philippe de Villiers, represents the staunchly Catholic Vendée region in the European Parliament. Villiers has his own opinion of Fillon, whose parents were Vendeans, accusing him of being an ambitious Bilderberger.
Nor is Fillon rated that highly by Civitas, which is also militant against abortion, and consequently praised Jean-Marie Le Pen for reminding French women about motherhood.
The stance puts a line between Civitas and Manif pour tous whose ebullient leader goes by her showbiz name, Frigide Barjot (satirizing Brigitte Bardot, it means frigid loony).
Barjot, who converted to Catholicism after going to Lourdes, visited Fillon as soon as he was nominated. His newest ally is another Catholic who was once a parachutist in the Foreign Legion, something which could describe old man Le Pen exactly. This time, however, it is another aristocrat, Henri de Castries, who succeeded a fellow-Catholic, Claude Bébear, as head of the world’s second largest insurer, AXA. Having previously marched in favor of Catholic education, Castries also took part in the original demonstration of Manif pour Tous.
The Big If
The polls already put Fillon in the Élysée Palace, but French politics are unpredictable. With seven candidates vying to run for the left, the Socialists might sideline the doughty Manuel Valls, who disdains all religions, in favor of another ex-minister, Benoit Hamon, a Breton who attended a Marist school up to sixth grade, and still calls himself Catholic.
Moreover, there is now an independent candidate for the presidency. He is Emmanuel Macron, who left the Socialist Party in 2007 when he began a career at Rothschild that made him a millionaire. Well, at least he attended a public school founded by Jesuits.
In the background, though, is that Valls, the last prime minister, repeatedly renewed France’s state of emergency he imposed in November 2015 after the massacre in Paris, which was followed by more in Brussels, Nice, and Berlin. It needs only another one touching France to swing more voters to the National Front.
As to the Church, what the French bishops note in Dans un monde qui change retrouver le sens politique (finding the political way back in a changing world) is almost the same as a point in the latest SSPX bulletin: “On the one hand, the French government seeks to impose secularism as the state religion while, on the other, Islam becomes more aggressive and dominant every day with the complicity of politicians and the culpable blindness of churchmen. . . .”