During the French Revolution’s worst years, some of the most visible expressions of violence involved attacks on the Church, which was perceived as a pillar of the ancien régime. Revolutionaries slaughtered numerous clergy and expelled thousands of others. They expropriated Church-owned property and occasionally ransacked and burnt churches.
It was hard not to recall these past events when reading about the recent spate of vandalism inflicted on Catholic churches throughout France over the past two weeks.
The Observatoire de la Christianophobie reports that between February 3 and 11, nine Catholic churches were subject to severe vandalism, ranging from the smashing of statues and stained-glass windows to the overturning of tabernacles. One church in Yvelines, the church of Saint-Nicolas de Houilles, was vandalised three times in seven days. It follows a series of similar attacks on Catholic churches throughout France in 2018.
Vandalism isn’t a new problem. But why have Catholic churches in France become a target in recent years?
Part of the answer lies in that they are easy targets. Many churches are open to the public on a regular basis. In some cases, they lack internal surveillance cameras. This made it simple for a group of Romanian migrants, for instance, to stroll into Catholic churches throughout 2018 and walk out unimpeded with valuable artifacts to sell.
Beyond professional thieves, the absence of security means that anyone with a grudge or strong resentment about their present circumstances won’t encounter too much difficulty if they choose to wreak havoc on a church’s interior. That could include people ranging from disgruntled teenagers to Islamists looking for easy targets.
To that extent, the outbreak of church vandalism may reflect the social unrest presently permeating France. The country is now into its fourth month of protest by the gilets jaunes (yellow vests). Much of this has been expressed through vandalism of banks, high-end businesses in fashionable parts of Paris and other cities, and the occasional scrawling of graffiti on national monuments. The police’s aggressive response to the gilets jaunes has also helped inure many otherwise peaceful people to everyday violence.
That, however, doesn’t explain the French media’s relative silence on church desecrations or the French government’s indifferent response to the problem. The only major French newspaper to raise major concerns has been the centre-right Le Figaro. On February 13, Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe belatedly tweeted a condemnation of the attacks, promising he would discuss the issue at his next meeting with France’s Catholic bishops.
That’s hardly a robust response. It also suggests that, when it comes to violence against Catholic places of worship, the reaction of much of France’s political and media establishment is a collective shrug.
In some quarters, things have not changed much since 1789.