03 May 2017, The Tablet

Macron-Le Pen runoff leaves Catholic voters in disarray

The episcopal conference chose to restate Church social teaching — an implicit rejection of Le Pen’s nationalist populism

The presidential runoff between centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right Marine Le Pen has left Catholic voters in disarray after the bishops conference signalled criticism of the anti-immigrant National Front but did not take a clear position against the party.

Macron was still ahead going into tomorrow’s vote, but this confusion has undermined initial projections, after his first round victory on 23 April, that he would win easily with over 60 per cent support.

Many Catholic voters who supported conservative Francois Fillon, the third-placed candidate, became “political orphans” when their candidate missed the cut.

About 45 per cent of practising Catholics voted in the first round for Mr Fillon, a self-professed Christian close to the anti-gay marriage movement, despite financial scandals revealed during the campaign that badly damaged his “Mr Clean” image.

Like many other mainstream politicians, Mr Fillon has urged his supporters to back Mr Macron in the runoff to block Ms Le Pen. But Common Sense, the conservative Catholic network central to his support, declined to endorse Mr Macron.

Contrary to 2002, when French bishops spoke out against Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie in his surprise runoff against President Jacques Chirac, the episcopal conference chose this time to restate Church social teaching — an implicit rejection of Le Pen’s nationalist populism — without going further.

The official reason was Church non-partisanship, but it was clear the 2002 choice was easy — many Catholics supported Chirac — while congregations now are much more divided.

The choice was clearer for France’s Muslims and Jews, whose leaders have backed Mr Macron and rejected the far-right.

While Mr Macron’s pro-European stand appeals to many Catholics, his social liberalism — for example, support for assisted procreation for lesbian couples — puts off more conservative Catholics for whom such family issues are non-negotiable.

After the bishops’ conference statement met criticism from several corners, some bishops issued individual statements against voting for the far-right.  

“I think back to the Latin expression ‘non possumus’ (we cannot),” said Bishop Jacques Blaquart of Orleans, adding he did not agree completely with Mr Macron but larger issues were at stake.

Some lean the other way. Bishop Dominique Rey of Frejus-Toulon, where the National Front is strong, reminded Catholics they can abstain and stressed more conservative criteria for evaluating candidates than the bishops’ conference did.

Two prominent conservative Catholic activists — Christine Boutin of the small Christian Democratic Party and Ludovine de La Rochère of the anti-gay marriage movement Demo for All — openly came out in favour of Ms Le Pen.

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