One of the great turning points in French history occurred during the summer of 1788. One of the King’s ministers sent a note to the royal treasury, requesting a sum of money. The reply when it came said that not only was the treasury empty, but that all future income from taxation had been mortgaged, and it was impossible to borrow any more. In other words, the government had run out of money. At that point, power fled from the King, who was forced, after a series of failed manoeuvres, to call the Estates-General. What happened next, we all know.
Perhaps the murder of a priest saying Mass in Normandy will be a similar turning point in current French affairs. When M. Valls, the Prime Minister, visited Nice, the scene of the last atrocity, he was booed. The French government has declared war on ISIS, but that declaration of war has only served to underline their failure to protect people from terrorist outrages. Despite the state of emergency, despite all the police on the streets, the terrorists have struck again.
No one can doubt that the government is willing to fight terrorism; but at the same time no one can doubt that their efforts have met with repeated failure. Every time they strike, the government’s credibility takes a blow. This recent outrage may mark the point where the government of M. Hollande and M. Valls loses its final shred of credibility. After all, governments are supposed to protect the people that live under their rule. That is their primary purpose. The murder of Fr Hamel represents regime failure.
As M. Hollande, like Louis XVI, through no real fault of his own, looks more and more like a hollowed-out ruler, there are others waiting to fill the vacuum of power. Marine Le Pen stood a good chance of reaching the run off in the presidential election, before this latest outrage. Now her chances look better than ever. Indeed the unthinkable – Marine Le Pen winning the presidential election – is no longer unimaginable.
This, it seems to me, is the real import of the murder of Fr Hamel and the attack on the congregation in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray: it may well have deep political reverberations inside France.
As for the targeting of a Catholic priest saying Mass, this is not news. Lots of priest have been killed in recent years, or kidnapped, and the same goes for nuns. This has happened in places like Syria, Yemen and Somalia, and numerous congregations have been attacked in countries like Iraq and Kenya. They key thing with this latest outrage is that it has happened in France. That jihadis attack Christians is not news; that they do so in France is. If this had happened in Pakistan, that would not have had the same effect.
So, what now? The response to this attack, whether from the French government or the Vatican or the usual commentators has begun to assume the characteristics of ritual. Compare it to the response to the last attack, and you will see what I mean. Everyone says and does the same sort of thing, until the next attack occurs, whereupon the usual responses are repeated.
A decade and a half after the Twin Towers, we still have not worked out what to do about Islamist terrorism. Indeed, all the responses we have attempted have failed or made the situation worse. This perhaps explains the emergence of a very strange response to terror – namely, that we should do nothing, because somehow or another it is all our fault.
Fr Hamel, may he rest in peace – indeed, may he pray for us from his place in heaven –is not the first priest to be murdered in France for political reasons. Rather, he is the first for some time. I may be wrong about this, but the last priest killed for political motives in France was Mgr Darboy, Archbishop of Paris, killed by the Communards in 1871. Before that event, thousands of priests met grisly deaths in France in the various revolutions, where priest-killing became something of a national sport.
The jihadis have this in common with the Communards and the sans culottes: they see the peaceful practice of the Catholic religion as a capital offence. How on earth does one reason with that sort of mindset? The frightening thing is that, in the end, the way the Commune was dealt with shows the failure of reason.
The death of Fr Hamel is lamentable in all respects, but what lies behind it, the rejection of reason by a significant group of people, who perversely regard murder that most unreasonable act as somehow the right thing to do – that is chilling. We are facing not just an isolated act of madness in the murder of Fr Hamel, but something much worse, the collapse of the values that underpin our society.
Can anything be done? The Commune ended in mass murder, the destruction of large parts of Paris, and the survivors exiled to remote Pacific islands – and the building of the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur in reparation. In that wonderful church, where Christ is enthroned and worshipped round the clock in the Blessed Sacrament perhaps lies the clue to the solution to our predicament. The solution to the present crisis will only be found on our knees before God.