How will Francis handle Hollande?

François Hollande meets representatives of France’s Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists at the Élysée Palace last year (AP)

When French president François Hollande meets Pope Francis today, their polite exchanges will barely conceal the Church-state tensions being felt in this traditionally Catholic country.

The agenda for Hollande’s first Vatican visit is expected to include climate change and recent French interventions in Africa. It may well spill over, however, into much more contentious areas.

“This is a courtesy event, designed to show France enjoys normal relations with the Holy See, so Hollande will be doing his best to avoid controversy,” Dominique Greiner, religion editor of the Catholic La Croix daily, explained. “But with a whole new run of sensitive issues set for 2014, France’s bishops are trying to convince opinion this government isn’t moving in a good direction. Many people will expect this to be reflected in the Vatican talks.”

When Hollande was elected president in May 2012, his platform included policies to boost the flagging economy, but also featured liberalising measures such as same-sex marriage and embryo research. The Socialist leader also promised to take steps to reaffirm France’s guiding principle of laïcité – excluding religion from the public sphere – which many Socialists believed had been eroded under his centre-Right predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Though aimed primarily at curbing fundamentalism among Muslims, who now make up a 10th of France’s 60 million inhabitants, the initiative was greeted with disdain by Christian communities. Since then, controlling well over half the 577-seat Assemblée nationale, Hollande’s Socialist government has followed through on its election pledges – provoking bitter opposition from a broad sweep of French society. 

When a same-sex marriage bill, dubbed “Marriage for All”, was enacted last spring, angry demonstrations erupted in French cities. In one spectacular protest, a 78-year-old historian, Dominique Venner, shot himself inside Notre Dame in Paris.  

The law was bitterly opposed by France’s Catholic bishops, some of whom joined the demonstrations and arranged for parish groups to be bussed in. 
Although same-sex weddings are now taking place, opponents have vowed to go on resisting the law with constitutional appeals, while also fighting other Socialist plans for education and family life.

Catholics traditionally make up two-thirds of the French population, though fewer than one in 10 attend Sunday Mass and 40 per cent of the population say they belong to no faith. The French bishops have commended Catholics for giving “public expression to their concerns” and urged them to go on “deploying it in other domains where vigilance is required”.   

These have been mounting up. In July, when the Socialist-dominated Assemblée overturned a 2011 ban on embryo research, Church leaders protested that the measure had been voted through with barely any parliamentary debate. 

An Observatory on Laïcité, set up by Hollande and premier Jean-Marc Ayrault, has recommended measures to defend laïcité, as defined in France’s famous 1905 Separation Law. In September, a “Charter of Laicity” was duly sent to all state schools, barring any display of “political or religious convictions” by staff and pupils.

The 17-point charter, promoted by education minister Vincent Peillon, reaffirms a controversial 2004 French law banning “ostentatious religious symbols” from schools. The charter will be followed by a new course in 2015 on “secular morality”.

Dalil Boubakeur, the president of France’s Council of Muslims, has predicted that Islamic believers will feel “stigmatised” by a charter which, he said, requires pupils “to behave like robots” and “leave their faith in the cloakroom”. Meanwhile, Christian critics have said it may prevent children from understanding religion. 

“If we don’t cultivate a true knowledge of religions, young people won’t be able to respect others in a fair way,” bishops’ conference spokesman Mgr Bernard Podvin told La Croix last autumn. “We understand the need to recall the principle of secularism and regulate the public sphere and educational establishments. But this secularism mustn’t be hollow or limited to negating and hindering religions.” 

Some observers wonder how effectively the Church can resist the Socialist onslaught.

Priestly vocations have fallen sharply in France, leaving many of the Church’s 36,000 parishes without resident priests and fuelling fears that a fifth of its 15,000 listed churches face closure by local councils. But Antoine Renard, president of France’s National Federation of Catholic Family Associations, remains defiant. 

“Things are getting worse here,” he told me. “The government is pressing on with an aggressive secularist agenda clearly directed against the Catholic Church.  

“But while our bishops’ capacity to talk and act is restricted by official considerations, Catholic organisations like ours have no such limitations. We need to stay visible and take action on the Church’s behalf.” 

At a traditional New Year meeting with Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders on January 10 in the Élysée Palace, Hollande and his interior minister, Manuel Valls, promised to consult faith communities on “legislation of social importance”, including bioethics.  

Yet Church leaders say previous promises of consultation have not been honoured. 

In September, they condemned a “unilateral decision” to restrict Protestant and Jewish programmes on state television, and protested that religious experts had been excluded from a 39-member committee which advises the government on ethical issues.

Socialist legislation is pending to liberalise abortion and there are plans to abolish Ascension, Pentecost and Assumption as public holidays, while local government support for France’s 8,800 Catholic schools is also being cut.

But Catholic campaigners have scored some successes. France’s main police union has expressed regret for the violent suppression of last spring’s demonstrations against same-sex marriage, while the appeal court has rejected attempts to bar religion from state kindergartens. 

On the other hand, in October France’s Conseil Constitutionnel rejected a petition from 20,000 town mayors demanding the right to opt out of conducting same-sex weddings under last May’s law. 

At the start of the year Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris deplored the failure of politicians to speak out when feminist and anti-Catholic activists desecrated the capital’s La Madeleine and Sainte Odile churches,    

Last week, meanwhile, the government went ahead and tabled legislation to allow “medically assisted suicide” for patients “at the end of life or burdened by an illness judged irreversible”. 

In a response, the bishops’ conference recalled that all euthanasia was unacceptable, and cautioned that the bill would “lead society to take inhumane decisions”.

“Thou shalt not kill remains a major moral requirement of every society – and, for believers, a commandment of God,” the bishops said. “Those who come to doubt the value and sense of their lives need to be accompanied and shown solidarity and support in their ordeal. Do we have nothing to propose to them other than to put an end to their existence?”

La Croix editor Dominique Greiner thinks euthanasia could become the next Church-state flashpoint, and believes that Catholic leaders, while avoiding direct political involvement, will encourage the French faithful to take a firm stand.  

Antoine Renard agrees. Organisations like his have received messages of solidarity not just from France but from around Europe too. His association plans to step up its campaign before municipal and European Parliament elections this spring. 

“We’re accustomed to Catholics being treated as the enemy here,” Renard says. 

“But it’s tragic and shocking that many people no longer even understand that we believe in God, and just assume the Church is some old-fashioned organisation that hasn’t understood how the world works. We now need to prove them wrong by appealing to consciences and mobilising support.”