After meeting stiff resistance for decades, the French National Front is now gaining ground among Catholics.
For years, commentators had spoken of a “Catholic exception”: the faithful had seemed notably hostile to the party compared with other social groups. But in last December’s regional elections, Catholics voted for the National Front in proportionately greater numbers than the rest of the population (32 per cent compared with 28.4 per cent, according to the pollsters IFOP).
This was a huge surprise. Historically, the National Front has been weakest in strongly Catholic areas such as Brittany and western France. Not only that: Marine Le Pen, party leader since 2011, has taken a hardline view of laïcité, the state ethos of secularism. “Priests should stay in the sacristy,” she told the Christian weekly La Vie, indicating that she saw no role whatsoever for clergy in public life. The Church, in contrast, has promoted a softer form of laïcité, encouraging believers to express their faith in the political arena.
The National Front’s uncompromisingly secularist approach has been strengthened further by the rise of Florian Philippot, vice president since 2012. Commenting on the burkini controversy this summer, he said: “All religious symbols – crosses, kippas and veils – should be banned from the public square.”
So what has inspired Catholics to flock, as it were, to the gates of Montretout, the manor owned by Le Pen’s family in the west of Paris?
First, the National Front benefited immensely from the protests over same-sex marriage in 2013. The Manif Pour Tous coalition, backed by the Catholic hierarchy and the right-wing party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), organised large demonstrations in Paris and elsewhere. For many young people, it was their first experience as political activists. Now, three years later, many Catholics feel betrayed by the UMP. The party, which is known today as the Republicans, is led by Nicolas Sarkozy. In 2014, the former French president promised to repeal the gay marriage law. Just a year later he reversed course and said he would uphold it.
But there is one politician who is able to connect with the new Manif Pour Tous generation: Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the niece of Marine. In contrast to her aunt, the twenty-something MP attended the demonstrations against same-sex marriage. While Marine is a lapsed Catholic, Marion describes herself as a catholique décomplexée (“fearless Catholic”). “We are the anti-May 1968 generation,” she has said of likeminded French young people. “We want principles, values. We want teachers to follow. We want God.”
Comments like these have, not surprisingly, made her popular with Catholics. It also helps that she is charismatic and politically shrewd. But according to Erwan Le Morhedec, a Catholic lawyer and author, her influence within the National Front shouldn’t be overestimated. “Yet there is now a temptation to vote for the party, especially among the Catholic youth,” he says. “They want to affirm their identity, as they have no reasons to hope for a bright future.”
Aside from gay marriage, the National Front has also gained support thanks to the migrant crisis and terror attacks. After the murder of Fr Jacques Hamel by ISIS in July, many French Catholics have begun to identify with Middle Eastern Christians persecuted by Islamists and are therefore more receptive to the National Front’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.
“Nevertheless, relations between the National Front and the Church are still cold,” Le Morhedec says. “The bishops have followed the Pope’s call to welcome migrants, which the party rejects systematically.”
Yet the hierarchy does not present a completely united front. In 2015, Bishop Dominique Rey of Fréjus-Toulon, a diocese in the National Front’s southern heartland, invited Marion Maréchal-Le Pen to speak at a summer school in his diocese. Why? “Where the National Front gets 40 per cent of the votes, the local Church cannot afford to lose contact with the faithful,” suggests Le Morhedec.
In some ways, the Church seems to be back in the early 20th century, when the journalist Charles Maurras was leading the fierce monarchist movement Action française. Maurras was an agnostic who nevertheless believed that Catholicism was an important tool for social cohesion. In 1926, just as Maurras was rallying French Catholics, Pope Pius XI condemned his movement.
The spirit of Maurras is alive and well in the National Front, which also takes a utilitarian view of the Catholic faith. The New Maurrassians defend the “Christian identity” of France, though you won’t find them at Mass. They are ferocious critics of Pope Francis and the French bishops, who they regard as soft on Islam.
How can the French episcopate see off the National Front without alienating the faithful who are increasingly drawn to them? “The Church must insist that a clash with Islam is not inevitable,” says Le Morherdec. “We must not be naive: we do have an enemy, which is Islamist terrorism. But we have also far-right people who say dialogue with Muslims is impossible. They do everything to make the dialogue even more difficult.”
In the last resort, might the French bishops ask Pope Francis to be their Pius XI and help them vanquish the new Maurrassians of the National Front?
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