There is a left/right division among the candidates, and the left vote is split between three candidates: Mélanchon, Hamon and Macron. It is not immediately obvious that Macron is a left candidate, but several of Hollande’s ministers have come out in support of him (to the dismay of Hamon, the official Socialist candidate). The right is united, or rather, it has only one candidate, François Fillon. There is an intense media barrage against him.
The population is aware that politicians are now of secondary importance: what really decides the standard of living and the way of life of the French is the actions of the big corporations in the world market, and a liberal Europe. The declarations of successive presidents in front of steel works and other plants: ‘I will not allow this plant to close’, followed by the closure of said plant very shortly after, have proved this to voters beyond doubt. The practice of ‘primaries’, which end up nominating eccentric candidates more or less at random, has increased the sense of unreality. The National Front is no more convincing than the rest as regards the power of international finance and trade; Marine Le Pen doesn’t say how she will cope with them.
The Catholic vote?
It is more usual, when speaking about France, to talk about secularism. Catholics are rarely mentioned. Which is why people were startled when
Francois Fillon, the right wing candidate, member of Sarkozy’s party Les Républicains, claimed he was ‘a Christian and a Gaullist’. Left wing Catholics were quick to protest against this imposture, since Fillon had given no public demonstration of piety previously, and he is certainly not a supporter of Pope Francis and his social doctrine. Then a poll announced that a majority of Catholics were going to vote for Fillon.
France has a Catholic tradition. In the deep countryside the stone crosses that stand at the side of the main roads entering the village are looked after, with cut grass and flowers; the cemeteries are well maintained. In suburbs round Paris, gentrification and immigration, sometimes in the same places, fill the churches again.
The number of practising Catholics in France is nevertheless small and shrinking further year by year. The statistics established by the Conference of Bishops of France show that clearly: figures for baptism, confirmation and marriage decrease markedly each year.
The largest figure to support the survival of Catholic practice is that for baptism: in 2012 there were 290,282 baptisms out of 819,191 births that year.
But this start in life is not followed up by going to catechism classes (6,229 that same year), or confirmation (44,011), although there are a number of church weddings: 74,636 out of 251,654 marriages in total in the year 2010.
Many churches are closed practically all year round; this is due to the small number of priests: 13,331 priests in 2012 served the 32,000 towns and villages in France, all but the small villages having more than one church.
The readership of the Catholic daily newspaper La Croix (a well respected paper which won national prizes for quality) is relatively large: 92,280 paid for sales, as against 267,897 for the better known le Monde, in 2015.
The number of people who say they are Catholics is falling year by year; 64% of French people said they were Catholics, in 2010. The main French polling organisation, IFOP, found that same year that 4.5% of Catholics attended mass regularly.
The situation as regard church attendance is not so different in England. The number of people calling themselves Christian believers is also small and shrinking, while the proportion of church weddings is almost the same as in France. The differences are the near absence of anticlericalism in England, as against a lively one in France, and the contrast between Catholics and Protestants, which is strong in England and non existent in France, due to the small number and low profile of Protestants. (French Catholics are apt to call themselves ‘Christians’. A person was once heard on French radio talking about ‘Christians and Protestants’.) The strength of anticlericalism and the influence of secularism has led to many people agreeing that faith is a private matter.
Official government statistics do not include data regarding religion. A Catholic association however asked the most famous polling organisation IFOP to collect statistics on the voting intentions of Catholics in the forthcoming presidential elections. IFOP did not look for ‘Catholics’ as such to interview. They interviewed 1,860 people, ‘representative of the French population’, and asked them to fill in a questionnaire online. This was in early January this year, before the Fillon scandal broke. The questionnaire asked the respondents if they were ‘without religion, Catholics (non practising) or Catholics (practising)’. No other alternatives were provided (statistics are a mysterious science).
The results for the second round, presumed at the time to be Marine Le Pen versus Francois Fillon, showed very little difference between Catholics and those declaring themselves without religion. 63% of Catholics declared for Fillon (61% of ‘without religion’), 37% for Le Pen (39% of those without religion).
The first round, with its multiplicity of candidates, showed more differences: 30% of Catholics for Fillon (12 % of those without religion). Figures of support for Le Pen were less different: 29% compared to 24%.
Several elements in Catholicism might influence voting intentions: a general belief in solidarity, in good works and public service; this is expressed strongly in Catholic social doctrine, forcefully expressed by Pope Francis in his Encyclical Laudato Si. Then there are what the French call ‘questions sociétales’, values to do with life in society. We should also mention the attachment of parts of the traditional bourgeoisie to the church. This last is what Fillon appealed to when he called himself a Christian and a Gaullist, and is what is meant by ‘A majority of Catholics support Fillon’. The Catholic social doctrine is not well known, and not represented in any of the parties. As for the questions sociétales, Catholics have long been used to disregard Papal directives in that field, as regards contraception for example. 90% of French people are said to support assisted suicide at the end of life. This means that many Catholics support it, contrary to church doctrine (and contrary to simple humanity). Mélanchon and Hamon, the so-called left candidates, both support abortion and ‘active euthanasia’ in an emphatic manner in their programmes. This would not necessarily put off all Catholics.
Many Catholic on the other hand opposed the law for same sex marriage.
Strangely, this is a topic where Macron listened to Catholic feeling. He said during his present campaign that at the time of the vote in 2013 the opponents of the same sex marriage law had been treated in a humiliating manner. This is true. The law and the campaign for it were both extreme; removing the words ‘father’ and ‘mother’ from the Civil Code—as discriminatory— were extreme measures designed to show a total absence of sympathy for those who stand for traditional marriage. Macron’s gesture was greeted with indignation in the media.
The National Front is definitely not Catholic; Marine Le Pen is strongly for secularism; her high profile niece calls herself a Catholic and is against abortion, but that goes against party policy. Needless to say, both are strongly rejected by left wing Catholics.
The ‘Macron Law’
Whether the Catholic influence of solidarity and public service is at play or not, France is still clinging to State policies that defend all workers, such as the 35 hour week and the ban on Sunday working, as well as good social services; this entails relatively high taxation. France is being punished for this on the world market: Apple and other multinationals set up shop in London rather than Paris and poach the French workforce.
The solution for Macron is to make France more like England; his big idea is that relations between worker and employer should be negotiated on an ad hoc basis. And if people want to work on Sunday, they should be able to. The ‘Macron Law’ of 2015, voted when he was minister for the economy, allowed for Sunday working some weeks in some areas. That was a start; as president, he will try to do more, which is why he is probably a worse candidate than Fillon. He has made a gesture towards Catholic opinion, on a topic that is important but not vital; but his fundamental philosophy is individualist: ‘get the best deal you can’. Be like the Anglo-Saxons. Fillon distanced himself to some extent from the Anglo-Saxon and EU model, by refusing their anti-Russian position. Fillon wants normal relations with Russia and an end to sanctions. In that he is not completely following the standard liberal position, and is therefore the best of a bad bunch. (The left candidates are not seriously in the running.)