For a few days this month, France experienced a relapse into the type of anti-Catholic rhetoric that, 100 years ago, would have thrilled half the country and infuriated everyone else.
Laurence Rossignol, the former Socialist government minister, denounced Catholics for trying to restrict access to IVF and abortion, and seeking to stop euthanasia’s legalisation. Her comments paled, however, in comparison to the hard Left’s former presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He accused President Emmanuel Macron of behaving like a “little priest”. Across the country, Twitter erupted with denunciations of any rapprochement between L’État et L’Église.
The spark for these charged remarks was Macron’s decision to deliver a speech to French Catholic bishops and more than 400 Catholic leaders at the Collège des Bernardins, the centre of Catholic intellectual life in Paris.
Macron isn’t the first president of the Fifth Republic to engage with Catholic bishops in a public setting. Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, formally welcomed Catholic hierarchs to the Élysée several times and invariably referred positively to France’s Catholic heritage.
What made Macron’s address different was that he actively encouraged French Catholics to participate in French life as Catholics. He even identified three “gifts” which Catholics could offer France.
The first was sagesse: the Church’s centuries-old depository of wisdom, particularly about questions of human life. Catholics, Macron indicated, shouldn’t be afraid to express their insights into these matters. “You consider,” he said matter-of-factly, “that our duty is to protect life, particularly when that life is defenceless.”
The second gift was l’engagement. According to Macron, the Church challenges the relativism and nihilism burdening French society. But, he added, Catholic engagement is also reflected in the Church’s extensive but barely acknowledged outreach to France’s poor, sick and disabled.
The Church’s third gift was what Macron described as votre liberté. In a world lacking fixed reference points, Macron suggested, Catholicism’s insistence on certain universal truths gave it the freedom to speak about topics that others find irritating, such as the duties that people owe each other, the challenges posed by Islam and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
All this was set against a backdrop of Macron listing numerous contributions made by Catholics over the centuries to French culture. Pointedly, he linked the name of Fr Jacques Hamel, executed in 2016 by two Muslim terrorists, to the Catholic police officer Lt Col Arnaud Beltrame, also murdered by a jihadist after exchanging places with a hostage at a supermarket in southern France last month.
But the question consuming commentators after Macron’s speech was: why?
Why did Macron – a man from a non-religious family who requested baptism aged 12 and attended a Jesuit school, but who is somewhat mysterious about his precise religious beliefs – go to the Collège des Bernardins? Why would he refer regretfully to attempts to marginalise Catholic participation in politics? And why did he ask French Catholics to increase their involvement in the public sphere? Surely he knew such comments would attract heat from those on the left and right who instinctively regard any specifically Catholic involvement in public affairs as threatening laïcité, France’s strict separation of the Republic from religion?
Like many things to do with Emmanuel Macron, the answers are complicated. In the first place, Macron sees himself as a transformational figure for France. We observe this in his construction of a presidential victory and government upon an unconventional coalition which ranges from prominent conservatives to moderate socialists. It’s also evidenced by Macron’s attempts to liberate parts of the French economy from its dirigiste ways. To the extent that Macron’s public outreach to Catholics challenges the status quo, it fits with his emphasis on turning a page in French history.
Second, Macron has a record of wanting people to know that he’s attuned to changes in French society. In that regard, he’s undoubtedly aware that the accommodationism and “low energy Catholicism” of the 1970s was long ago eclipsed by a type of dynamic orthodoxy. Apart from being decidedly undeferential to secular expectations, those whom the newspaper Le Figaro call les néocatholiques combine clarity in articulating Catholic belief with an emphasis upon doing so in attractive ways. Your average French priest below the age of 50 isn’t an unkempt sandal-wearing soixante-huitard peddling Maoist tracts. He’s more likely to be sporting a soutane while pressing Cardinal Robert Sarah’s books upon his parishioners or blogging about matters ranging from the dangers of gender ideology to France’s acute economic problems.
The positive responses to Macron’s address from representative figures of this growing, increasingly outspoken and politically engaged French Catholic demographic, as reflected in websites such as Padreblog, suggest he judged this audience very well.
Awareness that things have changed among les cathos brings us to a third reason for Macron’s speech. His government is proposing to advance legislation allowing single women and lesbian couples to access IVF. In France, this is presently limited to infertile heterosexual couples. There is also talk of decriminalising euthanasia.
Macron recognises that if he pursues either issue, it will spark enormous resistance from French Catholics. During his predecessor François Hollande’s tenure, they showed that, through movements such as La Manif pour tous, they could activate huge protests from believers and non-believers alike against government policies judged harmful to family life.
For well-known historical reasons, French politicians get nervous whenever millions of people start marching on the streets, as they did when rallying against Hollande’s legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2013.
If Macron indeed wants to change France’s IVF and euthanasia laws, he may be betting that one way to soften Catholic opposition is to show that, unlike Hollande, he’s far more open to “dialogue” about such matters. That won’t stop Catholics from mobilising against such changes. But it would diminish comparisons with the hapless Hollande who was plainly bewildered by the Catholic-inspired resistance.
Lastly, it’s possible that Macron’s Catholic-friendly remarks form part of a strategy for addressing France’s greatest challenge: how to integrate a growing and, in some areas, increasingly militant Muslim population.
Macron knows full well that France’s eight million Muslims belong to a religious tradition that accepts no distinction between politics and religion, but also, as the historical record unambiguously attests, seeks to dominate society politically and religiously once it becomes the majority. Such dispositions fly straight in the face of laïcité. That includes the religion-friendly versions articulated by presidents François Mitterrand and Sarkozy, influential French Catholics such as the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger and the Fifth Republic’s Catholic founder, Charles de Gaulle.
Could Macron’s speech to Catholics be the start of efforts to rethink laïcité in ways that would effectively “tame” Islam in France? At this stage, it’s too early to tell. But pursuing this goal mirrors Macron’s self-image as someone intent on renovating France by confronting problems that no French politician since de Gaulle has successfully addressed.
The dramatic rhetoric in which Macron customarily vests his ambitions for France has led some detractors to label him “Napoleon”, a comparison Macron hasn’t denied.
But let’s recall that it was Napoleon who terminated the Revolution’s war against the Church via a Concordat with Pius VII in 1801. So perhaps French Catholics can be optimistic about Macron’s public embrace. That, however, should be tempered by noting that Pius excommunicated the French emperor eight years later, to which Napoleon responded by exiling the pope to Savona.
Macron’s invitation to French Catholics to enter public discussions unapologetically as Catholics should be welcomed. But, as always, Psalm 146’s adage applies: Nolite confidere in principibus. Put not your trust in princes – including the Gallic variety.
Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute