Espousing Catholicism used to be fatal to a French politician’s chances. The arrival of François Fillon shows how much the nation has changed

François Fillon’s successful campaign for the nomination of the centre-right Les Républicains party for this year’s presidential election has moved religion to the forefront of French political life. Fillon’s willingness to talk about his Catholic faith’s influence on his thoughts on matters ranging from economics to euthanasia is not something that the French are accustomed to hearing from politicians.

Given French politics’ hitherto decidedly secular character, there was always going to be a backlash from across the political spectrum against Fillon’s stance. What has been truly noteworthy, however, is the sheer feebleness of this reaction.

For decades, the operating assumption throughout France has been that a politician’s faith is a private matter. Discussion of such issues by those involved in public life has traditionally been frowned upon. One reason for this is the Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État.

This law was enacted by an anti-clerical government in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, the infamous scandal which involved a Jewish army officer being falsely convicted, on the basis of forged evidence, of passing military secrets to the Germans. He was imprisoned before eventually being cleared of all charges. L’Affaire, as it is still called today, didn’t only demonstrate the scale of anti-Semitism in the French army and France more generally. It also exacerbated the deep fracture already existing between secular and Catholic France.

The 1905 law involved the legal establishment of the principle which the French call laïcité. Broadly speaking, this means that religion may not influence the conduct of state affairs or government policy, while the state refrains from involving itself in religious affairs.

Over time, the interpretation and application of laïcité has varied. Immediately following the 1905 law’s passage, for example, laïcité formed the legal basis for the French government’s sequestering of much Church property.

Less draconian applications of the law gradually emerged. Catholics also came to see the advantages of the Church being free from government interference in its internal affairs. During his tenure as Archbishop of Paris, the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, one of 20th-century French Catholicism’s most illustrious products, regularly argued against proposals to amend the 1905 law.

One constant in French political life, however, has been appeals to laïcité to inhibit even the mildest of specifically Catholic contributions to public debate. Even some Catholic politicians engage in this practice. In a January interview, for example, the centrist politician François Bayrou, who happily affirms that he is a catholique pratiquant, referred to laïcité when criticising what he regarded as Fillon’s mixing of politics and religion.

Similar criticism has come from one of Fillon’s major competitors for the presidency: the hard-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen. When Fillon stated that, as a Christian, he would never let his proposed economic reforms hurt groups such as pensioners, the distinctly secular nationalist Le Pen immediately focused her attack not on Fillon’s policy proposals, but rather on him mentioning his Catholicism. This, she said, “deeply contradicts secularism and our values”. In Le Pen’s view, “To justify a political choice with religious beliefs is shocking.”

Once upon a time, such attacks would have been considered near fatal to a politician’s electoral prospects. Not any longer. As one French Catholic bishop recently remarked to me, whether Fillon becomes president is in one sense unimportant. Far more significant is that expectations concerning what it means to be a believing Catholic in French politics have changed in ways unimaginable only 10 years ago. It turns out that the old objections – and objectors – don’t carry the force they used to.

This new situation owes something to the fact that the group ideologically committed to the most aggressively secularist interpretation of laïcité – the cultural and political Left – is deeply discredited in contemporary France. The French Left’s loss of saliency is symbolised by the soon-to-be-concluded presidency of the Socialist François Hollande. His term in office has been so lacklustre that he’s not even running for re-election.

While the French economy continued to stagnate and high unemployment persisted, Hollande’s government focused on issues such as same-sex marriage or trying to impose gender ideology on the educational curriculum. Yet, as evidenced by the spectacular success of the lay Catholic-led mass movement La Manif pour Tous in mobilising millions (including non-believers, Jews, and Protestants) to protest against these social engineering schemes, fewer and fewer French citizens are inclined to accept the Left’s long-standing claim to take the lead in determining social policy.

The other issue that the French Left has conspicuously failed to address, and which has weakened its ability to insist upon its vision of laïcité in opposition to Fillon, is the topic on every French citizen’s mind: Islam.

There is a certain irony to this. One of Hollande’s few achievements has been the relative success of the French military (whose officer corps continues to contain disproportionately high numbers of practising Catholics) in combating strong jihadist movements in former French colonies such as Mali in west Africa.

Within France, however, the story is very different. There has been a discernible spread of Muslim-dominated urban areas in which the police find it increasingly difficult to maintain law and order. Then there are the attacks by Islamic jihadists which have resulted in the slaughter of French citizens in cities ranging from Nice to Paris.

Rather than seeing these developments as an occasion to rethink its approach to laïcité, most of the French Left simply refuse to acknowledge that Islamist terrorism has something to do with Islam. Instead, as recently observed by the philosopher Pascal Bruckner, they use the accusation of “Islamophobia” to try to shut down any debate on this subject.

This wilful blindness has seriously undermined the French Left’s ability to speak with any authority about anything to do with religion among a population visibly rattled by the spread of what are effectively Muslim ghettos, and worried about future jihadist acts of terror that the government has described as “inevitable”. But it has also opened up space for a centre-right politician like Fillon to maintain in his 2016 book Vaincre le totalitarisme islamique that “No, there is not a religious problem in France. Yes, there is a problem related to Islam.”

The French’s Left’s unwillingness to concede the existence of this obvious problem is one reason why its understanding of laïcité doesn’t maintain the type of sway it once exercised over large segments of French opinion. Even the former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls has described France as “a country with Christian roots that hosts the oldest Jewish community in Europe”. Such sentiments aren’t that far from Charles de Gaulle’s affirmation that France is a secular republic with a Catholic heart.

The overall result of these changes is that attempts from the Right and the Left to discredit Fillon on account of his Catholicism just aren’t having the anticipated effects. He’s far more likely to come politically undone either by successful attacks on his desire to substantially liberalise France’s economy, or by any hard proof that he has engaged in financial improprieties.

But whatever happens to Fillon’s presidential candidacy, it has helped to create greater scope for lay Catholics to bring Catholic teaching into French public debate. To the extent that this creates a more genuinely pluralist France, one more attached to its roots, willing to identify real problems and less bound to ideologically secularist agendas, all of France – believer and non-believer alike – is likely to benefit.

This article first appeared in the February 3 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here