News Analysis

Outside Paris, French people are more socially conservative than politicians think


For three months, France has been swamped by protests from thousands of French citizens whose patience with their nation’s political establishment has snapped. Far from fading, the gilets jaunes have reduced France’s president Emmanuel Macron to engaging in televised listening sessions across the country. Such is the situation in which “Jupiter” – as he’s dubbed after he likened his presidential-style to the rule of the Roman god – finds himself.

All social movements have unexpected side effects. One of the gilets jaunes’ unforeseen impacts has been to bring to the fore widespread discontent about issues considered by most French politicians to be “settled”. It’s been a long time since a French president, ministers and parliamentarians have had to listen to people from non-Parisian France loudly and publicly berate them about topics ranging from immigration to why they loathe the European Union.

These aren’t, however, the only forums in which the French can vent. Late last year, the government set up what’s called a consultation citoyenne whose purpose was to allow people to express their opinions online about the issues occasioned by the gilets jaunes protests. Completed on January 4, the subjects receiving the most attention turned out to be socially conservative in nature. The recommendation garnering the greatest support was a call to repeal France’s 2013 Loi Taubira which legalised same-sex marriage.

As any pollster will tell you, this method of surveying public opinion is open to manipulation. If you can organise enough people to register their support for a proposal online, you can significantly shape the outcome. Some commentators have suggested that the consultation’s results reflected a concerted campaign by the Catholic-led traditional family movement, La Manif pour tous, to bring its issues to the fore.

Nonetheless, it’s striking that social issues dominated the consultation. After all, they haven’t featured among the gilets jaunes’ largely economic concerns.

One possible interpretation is that the results mirror many French citizens’ desire to have a direct say in any projected change to laws concerning life, marriage and the family. Indeed the consultation’s third-ranked issue was a demand for a national referendum on any proposed liberalisation of France’s bioethics laws. Another data point indicated by the consultation is that France is more socially conservative and attached to certain Catholic beliefs than many people realise.

But more generally, I think the results reflect a wider trend: a yearning for stability which goes hand-in-hand with growing distrust of France’s professional political class, and a determination to bypass shapers of public opinion such as Parisian journalists who live in the same bubble as people like Macron. There’s no reason why this trend should remain confined to anger about economic issues.

Any French politician worth his or her salt should be paying attention.