06 February 2017, The Tablet

The 'rise and fall' of a Catholic moment in French politics

by Tom Heneghan from Paris


Francois Fillon’s financial scandals cloud the prospects for a “Christian” president

It was nice while it lasted. Just a few weeks ago, France’s elusive “Catholic vote” looked like it was coming back into focus after years of only blurry shapes on pollsters’ radar screens. The faithful have voted for all kinds of candidates in recent decades, so they didn’t seem to play a decisive role, and politicians cared less and less about them.  
That changed last November with the conservative Les Republicains party’s primary to choose a presidential candidate. After running a hardly noticed third for most of the campaign, former prime minister François Fillon rallied in the end to win the nomination.
Surprised French pundits soon found that Fillon, a dour mainstay of French conservativism for years, had fired up core Catholic voters — an electorate they had neglected — by openly saying he was a Christian and projecting an image of a trustworthy soul among greedy politicians.
For the first time in a long time, these Catholic voters — not the broad majority of “cultural Catholics” but the smaller group who take their faith seriously and want to see ethics play a greater part in politics — felt like they were being heard. Fillon was a man of integrity, a strong silent type who with his Welsh-born wife brought up five children in a chateau near a monastery in the traditionally Catholic region around Le Mans.
After his victory, the pundits discovered that a network of Catholics mobilised by the protests against legalising gay marriage in 2012-2013 had been instrumental canvassing for Fillon. They also saw, with hindsight, how effective he had been on the campaign trail when — without referring to his scandal-stained rivals — he asked his rallies:  “Can you imagine General de Gaulle being put under judicial investigation?”
The primary victory all but handed him the keys to the Élysée Palace, because his presumed opponent on 7 May would be Marine Le Pen. The National Front leader leads the polls for the election’s first round, when voters like to let off steam, but is still judged too toxic for a majority to support in the decisive runoff.
But Fillon’s solid image fell apart over the past two weeks as Le Canard enchaîné weekly — the Private Eye of Paris — revealed that his wife Penelope and two of their grown children had been on his payroll as parliamentary assistants for years without much proof of any work done. Suddenly “Penelopegate” was on all the front pages.
The news that the Fillon family had quietly raked in a total of over one million euros of taxpayers’ money over the years shocked these voters. That fact that Fillon himself didn’t withdraw in shame, but insisted nothing was illegal and he would fight on, only made it worse. “How can he call himself a Christian?” an indignant French friend asked me on Sunday.
Fillon has now slumped to third in the opinion polls, behind Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, a young former economics minister under Hollande who has launched a surprisingly successful centrist campaign. Pollsters say disillusioned Catholic voters are drifting towards either of those two.
Fillon has vowed to clear his name and his party allies are standing by him publicly. But privately, they’re in panic and scrambling to prepare a Plan B.
And on the left …
Meanwhile, on the left, the Socialists are doing so badly that it’s almost not worth writing about their campaign. After the unloved President François Hollande declared in December he would not seek re-election, his slightly less unpopular prime minister Manuel Valls joined his party’s primary race. He made it through to the runoff race in late January but lost badly to Benoît Hamon, who leaned leftwards with promises to legalise cannabis and introduce a guaranteed minimum wage.
Valls didn’t go out without fighting a final battle over France’s trademark policy of laicite, though. The right-wing Socialist has always been a hardliner about the strict separation of Church and State. So when in the final stretch he saw defeat looming at the finish line, he rounded on Hamon for supposedly being “ambiguous” about radical Islam.
Valls, a staunch defender of last summer’s bans on the full-body burkini at several Mediterranean beach resorts, told a Muslim woman during a television debate that the hijab she was wearing was a sign of her “enslavement”.
"Secularism is not a sword, it’s a shield, it’s what brings us together,” he argued, to her obvious disapproval. Before their make-or-break final debate, Valls and his allies spread the word that Hamon was close to “Islamo-leftists” and turned a blind eye to separate communities Muslims were creating around France.
During the debate, Hamon defended his view that Muslim women should be allowed to wear headscarves if they wanted. Fighting back, Valls accused him of voting against the 2010 law that banned full-face veils in public. A surprised Hamon had to remind Valls he wasn’t even an MP at the time.
Primary problems
All in all, these problems raise the question of whether the two large parties were well advised to adopt the American model of primary elections to choose their candidates. Despite attempts at reform, the opaque rules about money in politics mean many French politicians have some financial skeletons in their closets.
And then there are always the other possible pitfalls. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a talented economist who would have easily outshone Hollande in the Élysée Palace, looked set to win the Socialist primary in 2011 before he was arrested and tried on headline-grabbing charges of sexual assault in New York.
If that scandal hadn’t broken, there was still a long history of libertine hanky-panky the media were just waiting to expose after his expected victory in that primary.
It says a lot about the small world of French politics that many of the best brains who backed Strauss-Kahn before his fall are now lining up behind Macron. As are some, and maybe many, of those disillusioned Catholics. In what little he has said about religion in the public sphere, Macron comes across as a reasonable centrist. France may end up with a harmonious separation of Church and State for the next five years after all.

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