The tide of political change has reached France. François Fillon, nominated as the Republicans’ presidential candidate on Sunday, was the outsider, a radical Thatcherite candidate who did not seem to stand a chance until a couple of weeks ago.

In response to his victory, the French left-wing paper Libération published a front page with the headline “Help, Jesus is back!” (Au secours, Jesus révient!) and a rosary forming the shape of France. That is because, for many commentators, Catholics are at the centre of this transformation. Fillon is not just a Catholic, but a Catholic who knows “the flesh and blood” of conservative Catholicism, according to one observer.

Fillon was born in Le Mans, western France, near the Benedictine St Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, established more than 1,000 years ago and a shrine for Catholics in the rural west. He still attends Mass there.

So why are Catholics seen as crucial to his nomination? Why is his sympathetic understanding of conservative Catholicism such an advantage in a society that can be brutally secular?

The reason, in short, is Manif pour Tous. Back in 2013 the group mobilised a million people to march on the streets of Paris and Lyon in protest against the proposed introduction of same-sex marriage.

According to journalist Pierre Jova, Manif pour Tous revolutionised French politics. “Manif pour Tous launched a deep Conservative revolution throughout the country,” he says. “Many young people had a first and very intense experience as political activists with Manif pour Tous. Among Catholics, everybody knows someone who participated in it.”

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