The run-off of Sunday’s presidential election in France is both oddly modern and old-fashioned, a campaign shaped by pollsters and image-makers, as is the fashion of the 21st century, but at the same time summoning ghosts better known during the Third Republic (1870-1940) than during the current, Fifth Republic (1958-present). values.
“Generally, French Catholic voters support the moderate right in politics,” Declan Murphy, a visiting professor at EDHEC Business School in Paris, told me by email. “But right now, the traditional moderate-right Republicans party is in a state of dissolution much like the dissolution of the classic Eisenhower or Reagan American Republican Party.”
Now the options are a neoliberal or a far-right extremist – the same choice French voters faced five years ago.
In 2017, Marine Le Pen – the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the far-right National Front – was beaten when she ran against Emmanuel Macron, who launched his own centrist party and won the presidency with 66.1% to Le Stylo 33.9%. Since his defeat, Le Pen has tried to moderate his image and changed the name of his party to National Rally. Now, having edged Macron by less than five percentage points in the first round of the April 10 election, she is widely believed to be locked in a close contest with the incumbent.
Her nationalist rhetoric remains primarily focused on anti-Islamic xenophobia, but she has toned down her rhetoric surrounding her call to ban the wearing of the hijab in public. Her allies say the ban would be put in place “gradually” and the candidate herself said in a radio interview: “People who are present in our territory, who respect our laws, who respect our values, who have sometimes worked in France, have nothing to fear from the policy that I want to lead.”
Le Pen’s anti-immigrant stance alienated the French episcopal conference. “It is clear that the conference of bishops supports Macron, whose policy on migrants is close to the declarations of the Vatican,” said Antoine de Tarlé, a regular contributor to the Jesuit monthly. Studies and an occasional NCR commentator, in an email interview. “The majority of center-right Catholics follow this line. There are several far-right Catholic movements strongly hostile to Macron but they only include a tiny minority of the population.”
The war in Ukraine has also thrown a wrench into far-right nationalism. Le Pen has been all over the map recently on what kind of policy she would pursue toward Russia, France’s ally through much of pre-Soviet history. She called for reconciliation with Russia and pledged to remove the French military from NATO’s command structure, while playing down her hitherto unwavering admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Le Monde, the Parisian afternoon daily, ran an article reminding voters of the many links to Putin that Le Pen has been only too happy to trumpet in the past. The newspaper detailed the financial ties as well as a history of declarations of mutual admiration between the two. Now that Putin has gone from proto-fascist to full-fledged fascist, those connections play into people’s worst fears about Le Pen.
In America magazine, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a member of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, published a strange analysis of the Catholic vote. He wrote:
Marine Le Pen’s appeal to some Catholics, however, goes deeper than opposition to Mr. Macron. Many see French national identity as threatened by the forces of militant Islam and progressivism, and traditional French national identity seems a far more hospitable milieu for Catholicism than either alternative. At times it seems like Ms Le Pen is the only candidate who will shamelessly stand up to defend that identity against outside threats.
The problem with this paragraph is the repeated use of the word “identity” in the singular, and the link between this identity and Catholicism. France may be the “eldest daughter of the Church”, but like many parent-child relationships, this one is complicated and often strained.
Historians Anne-Marie and Jean Mauduit titled their masterful history of the separation of church and state in the early years of the 20th century “La France contre La France”. The two squadrons of dragoons, accompanied by soldiers of the line and a few mountain sappers, which descended on the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse on April 28, 1903 to drive out the monks, represented the France of the anticlerical prime minister Émile Combes, the head of the Left bloc who controlled Parliament at that time. His government was united primarily by its desire to close Catholic schools, dissolve religious orders, and repeal the Concordat with the Holy See that Napoleon had negotiated with Pope Pius VII. All of these objectives have been achieved.
Catholics did not disappear with the Concordat and many were understandably hostile to the progressives who had attacked their church. Yet it was France that produced the worker-priest movement immediately after World War II. Theological giants like Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac were among the most important intellectual influences on the Second Vatican Council, and Cardinal Achille Liénart was one of the leaders of reform efforts.
“The Catholic community in France has always had an ambiguous relationship with the Republic and its values,” Murphy said. “Due to the persecution of the French Church under the various revolutions, many Catholics refused to support the Republic. Others, like Tocqueville, hoped to see a “liberalization” of Catholicism while still others hoped for a Catholicization liberalism.”
Thus, when writing about French Catholics, it is wise to refer to their identities in the plural.
Interestingly, the only person who tried to play the Catholic card in this year’s elections was the candidate who ran to Le Pen’s right. “During these elections, someone played the role of using France’s Catholic identity for its anti-liberal project,” de Tarlé said. “It was Eric Zemmour, an observant Jew who frequents the Synagogue but who gave opinions closely linked to the old French Action.” Action Française was an early 20th-century proto-fascist movement that shrouded itself in Catholic imagery, but was condemned by Pope Pius XI in 1926.
The strategy did not work for Zemmour, who only won 7% of the vote in the first round.
“Zemmour didn’t understand that far-right Catholics aren’t interested in old stories about the Vichy regime,” de Tarlé said. “They are obsessed with very contemporary ethical issues regarding same-sex marriage, abortion and artificial conception.”
Le Pen was never sensitive to conservative Catholic concerns. “When she took over the party, she got rid of the Catholic extremists who were close to her father,” de Tarlé said. “She refused to fight against abortion and same-sex marriage. Her closest advisers share this position towards the church.”
The race is tight, although most observers, including Murphy and de Tarlé, believe Macron will be re-elected. Only if the final tally is very close will any perceived “Catholic vote” prove decisive. Like the United States, French Catholics no longer constitute a bloc, if they ever did. More decisive will be what will happen to the voters who supported the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came third in the first round with 22% of the vote against 23.2% for Le Pen.
It is the left, not the Catholics, who will choose the next president of France.