By Jonathan Luxmoore - OSV Newsweekly, 4/22/2012
When the citizens of France vote for a president April 22, it will follow a hard-fought campaign widely seen as crucial to their future. The Catholic Church has made efforts to guide members through the moral issues, in a country where church and state are strictly separated under the guiding principle of laïcité. It remains to be seen how much its voice has been heeded.
“The Church has maintained a neutral distance from the parties and respected the plurality of Catholic votes,” said Dominique Greiner, religion editor at France’s Catholic La Croix daily. “But while the main candidates have viciously attacked each other, there’s been little real response to the problems ordinary people face. In this sense, the whole election campaign has done a disservice to our political culture.”
France’s incumbent center-right president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is seeking a second term after five years in power, and is trailing behind his Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande, after failing to boost support for his party, the Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP.
Sarkozy has promised to defend France’s Christian heritage, whereas Hollande has called for the secular ethic to be strengthened, as well as backing controversial causes from same-sex marriages to higher taxes on the rich.
The other eight candidates have had much to say about laïcité as well, from the centrist Francois Bayrou to the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen, making views about religion a significant element in the contest. Yet this has done little to ease the general malaise overshadowing France, which has been badly hit by recession and a public spending crisis. In one recent poll, almost two-thirds of voters said they had “no confidence in either right or left.”
Preaching to politicians last fall at a Mass to mark the reopening of the Assemblee Nationale, or parliament, the president of the French bishops’ conference, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris, warned that many Frenchmen had been offered “client flattery” when they wanted “proper proposals” for confronting the financial crisis.
In a declaration, the bishops urged citizens to accept that their country was no longer “culturally homogeneous” and be ready to “vote in new ways.”
“Elements of discernment,” they added, should include protection of family life and help for the handicapped and dying. But Catholics should also consider what candidates were offering to safeguard the environment, secure economic justice and improve France’s city suburbs, where youth unemployment runs to 40 percent.
Catholics traditionally make up two-thirds of France’s 60 million inhabitants, although fewer than one in 10 attends Sunday Mass and 40 percent of the population denies any faith.
Incumbent’s mixed record
Opinions are deeply divided over Sarkozy’s record in office.
A divorced and remarried Catholic, Sarkozy pledged to improve ties with religious communities before his May 2007 election.
Visiting Rome that December, he said he believed laïcité, set out in a 1905 church-state separation law, should be interpreted “more positively” so religion could be seen “not as a danger, but as an advantage.”
After a second Vatican visit in October 2010, he was attacked by opposition politicians for taking part in prayers at the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
Sarkozy has continued to make glowing references to France’s Christian traditions. Meeting with religious leaders in January, he said he felt “truly comforted” by their presence. “As I’ve said many times, freedom of conscience is perhaps the most precious good guaranteed by our republican laws,” he added. “No religion will impose dogmas and precepts here on those who wish to avoid them. But nothing can prohibit the idea of transcendence from being present in our society.”
Not surprisingly, Sarkozy has garnered most Catholic support, according to surveys, with 45 percent of practicing Catholics planning to vote for him, compared with 6 percent backing Hollande.
Yet critics are cautious.
His conspicuous defense of family values and liberal economic principles may broadly accord with Catholic teaching, they point out. But other policies conflict with them, such as his backing of the 2010 mass deportation of Roma and tough attitude toward asylum-seekers and immigrants, who make up almost one in 12 of France’s inhabitants.
“Whatever the surveys suggest, many Christians are having trouble choosing between Sarkozy and Hollande,” said Greiner, the La Croix editor. “Most Church members would object to being described as conservative or progressive Christians. They simply want to be Christians and vote according to conscience. But many are confused about the candidates’ real values.”
In his January speech to religious leaders, Sarkozy developed his previous notion of a more “positive laïcité.”
France’s status as a “secular and social republic” was “written in black and white” in its constitution, he conceded. But religions should also play their part in creating French “cultural identities.” It would be a “strange schizophrenia” to preserve the religious heritage while insisting religions had “nothing more to say.”
“I reject any integrist vision of laïcité, just as I reject integrists and an integrism which exclude cultural or intellectual references to religion,” he added.
“A secular society is one which has decided to separate churches from the state, so the state doesn’t have to account for its choices to churches, and churches don’t depend on the state to live and organize — this is secularity, a secular republic. But this doesn’t mean your words shouldn’t go beyond your places of worship. That would be a strange idea of democracy — everyone has a right to speak, except you!”
When laïcité was last debated in 2002-5 by a parliamentary commission, France’s Catholic bishops argued that the principle had served the country well and rejected changes in its application.
Although the 1905 law placed Church properties under state control, it also offered a pragmatic solution to age-old dilemmas by allowing the state to avoid involvement in Church affairs.
Hard-line voices on the left tried to reinterpret the law, suggesting the state should deny any help for churches and ensure all religious manifestations disappeared from the public sphere. But this was never the law’s intention, Church leaders insist.
Most French voters may have more pressing concerns.
Addressing the French bishops’ spring plenary at Lourdes in late March, Cardinal Vingt-Trois said the Church had faced “multiple entreaties” to take sides. But Christians would have to decide how to vote by themselves in the light of “serious human, anthropological and ethical challenges” facing France.
Jonathan Luxmoore writes from England.
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