When Socialist politicians triumphed in French elections earlier this year, they were keen to dispel fears of a return to aggressive secularism in a country long known for its strict separation of church and state.  

Francois Hollande
France’s President Francois Hollande. CNS photo from Reuters

Some months on, however, there are signs of tension with the predominant Catholic Church, as President Francois Hollande and his Socialist government press ahead with plans to legalize same-sex marriage and adoption, and to enshrine the French principle of laicité, or secularity, in the national constitution.  

Developments in France will have wider implications for Europe, especially for countries where attitudes to churches and faiths parallel the French model. When the French bishops began traveling to Rome for an ad limina visit in late September, there was plenty to talk about.  

“Hollande has cautiously tried to avoid measures which could arouse strong feelings, especially among Catholics,” said Luc Foisneau, director at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. “But he put a strong emphasis on laicité in his campaign, sensing it was important for people that this principle be respected; so he knows he now has to follow this up with action.” 

New pressure

Hollande became France’s first Socialist head of state in three decades on May 6, defeating the incumbent center-right Nicolas Sarkozy after just one term in office.  

His victory by 52 percent to 48 percent signaled a leftward shift in French politics, which was confirmed by a Socialist Party victory in parliamentary elections June 17.  

Whereas Sarkozy had courted Catholic votes by defending his country’s Christian heritage, Hollande had defended France’s 1905 church-state separation law, accusing Sarkozy of endangering the “republican consensus” by showing too much favor to religions.  

Besides also backing euthanasia and embryo research, he’d called for France’s secular public schools to be strengthened and for renegotiation of a 2009 accord with the Vatican that gave equal state recognition to Catholic diplomas.  

Cardinal Barbarin
Cardinal Phillippe Barbarin

The president and his new government, half of whom are women, have since taken care to sound conciliatory. But with a strong majority of 314 out of 577 seats in France’s Assemblee Nationale, they’ve also been under pressure to follow through on their election pledges. 

With a legislative timetable now announced for controversial initiatives, beginning with same-sex marriage and adoption, Church leaders are growing anxious.  

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France’s Catholic primate, has defended the duty of Catholics to demand that governments “respect certain limits.”  

“It’s dangerous to set about redefining man, woman and marriage,” the cardinal told France’s Catholic La Croix daily in early September.  

When Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, president of the French bishops’ conference, met Hollande on July 17, he said he spoke up for marriage as “a social institution aimed at assuring the worthy upbringing of children.”  

He outlined Catholic concerns as well and claimed to have found the new Socialist president “receptive.”  

Just a month later, however, controversy erupted when a traditional “Prayer for France,” drafted each year since the 17th century, was read in Catholic parishes on Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption.  

The prayer, written by Cardinal Vingt-Trois, was widely viewed as an attack on gays and lesbians, since it urged that children and young people “will cease to be objects of the desires and conflicts of adults, and benefit fully from the love of a father and mother.”  

In a letter to other bishops, the cardinal defended the text as sending a “clear signal” at a time of important public debate on family life.  

Catholics had a right, he insisted, to talk about “problems they experience” in their prayers, and to ask that “those recently elected to provide law and governance ensure the common good of society takes priority in their thinking over individual pretensions.”  

For many, however, the prayer was the Church’s first shot across the bows of Hollande and his Socialists.  

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.  

Priestly vocations fell sharply over recent decades, leaving many of the country’s 36,000 Catholic parishes without resident priests, and fueling fears that a fifth of its 15,000 listed churches could face closure by local councils unable to maintain them.  

Seeking reassurance

Yet there’ve been recent positive signs as well.  

Adult baptisms have increased exponentially, while vocations showed an upswing in 2011, with 112 priests and 74 deacons receiving ordination.  

Plans are under way to develop the Marian sanctuary at Lourdes to cope with growing numbers of pilgrims, while in August, as more young people volunteered for parish work, almost 3,000 altar servers and helpers from 51 dioceses went on a national pilgrimage to Rome. 

For now, at least, the Socialists look set to press ahead with their controversial plans.  

Although gay marriage also faces opposition from Muslims, who make up 10 percent of France’s population, legislation to permit it has majority support, the government points out.  

Meanwhile, although France’s secular public school system is to be strengthened, this won’t be at the cost of Catholic schools, which educate 17 percent of children — there’ll be no question of “reigniting a school war,” the new Education Minister, Vincent Peillon, had repeatedly insisted.  

Many Catholics are far from reassured.  

Local officials in the northern Ile de France region have already announced plans to cut aid to Catholic schools, and there’ve been calls for tougher measures to enforce a 2011 ban on religious symbols and emblems in classrooms. 

In June, proposals were tabled to abolish three of the country’s six public holidays with Christian associations ­— Ascension, Pentecost and Assumption.  

Having expressed optimism after his meeting with Hollande, Cardinal Vingt-Trois hopes to take his message of concern to other ministers, too, including France’s new premier, Jean Marc Ayrault.  

“I think they count on us to explain our thinking — along with Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Orthodox and others — about what seems important for the country’s future,” the bishops’ conference president said after the July talks.  

“The Church isn’t the government’s partner, any more than the government is the Church’s partner. The government has its responsibility, and the Church has its own.”  

A different direction

Philippe Portier, an expert on religion at the Sorbonne University in Paris, thinks the Church has been forced to redefine its mission in France after losing its “traditional pillars.”  

“The Church has changed its mode of intervening, moving from institutional methods of the past to a greater emphasis on dialogue,” Portier told La Croix.  

“But there’s no reason for thinking this will be any less effective. In a postmodern society, where all power faces a crisis of confidence, those in office may well depend even more on the advice available from authorities like the Church.”  

Foisneau of Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique agreed. He thinks the Socialists would be ill-advised to pick quarrels with the Church.  

“Hollande sensed the French left had neglected the issue of church-state separation, he’s sent a clear signal that it remains important,” he said. “But most French, Catholics included, would prefer to stick with the system they’ve had for the last century anyway. Although it’s required a long struggle, most are committed to pluralism and can see they enjoy greater religious freedom today than ever before — even if this has brought a fall in Church membership and participation.”  

Provided a prudent and reasonable balance is maintained, that may well remain true.  

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from England.