The politics of "zombie Catholicism" in France

February 04, 2014
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In the January issue of Prospect, we identified "12 debates that will shape the coming year". One of them concerned what we decided to call "rejectionist politics": "The conversion of resentment at 'elites' into a political platform connects movements as diverse as the Tea Party in the United States, the UK Independence Party in Britain and European populist parties of right and left, such as the Front de Gauche and Front National in France, Geert Wilders's Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, the left-wing anti-austerity party Syriza in Greece and Beppe Grillo's 5-Star Movement in Italy."

The emphasis here was on rejectionist or populist parties—and we were using the terms more or less interchangeably, since what is being "rejected" is usually liberal-democratic business as usual managed by "elites" at the expense of the "people"—that have made some electoral headway, and are likely to consolidate their already considerable gains at the European parliamentary elections in May. But there are other morbid symptoms of rejection and disaffection currently metastasising across the continent which haven't yet found expression at the ballot box.

Take France, for instance, where, on 26th January, an organisation called "Printemps français" ("French Spring", as in "Arab Spring") brought an estimated 17,000 people on to the streets of Paris for a "day of rage" (jour de colère) against the Socialist government of François Hollande. The demonstrators were a rainbow coalition of the disaffected—hard-line Catholic "intégristes", opponents of gay marriage, the angry Poujadist fringe of France's small business community and supporters of the incendiary "comedian" Dieudonné.

The Front National was not involved, at least not formally. Manuel Valls, the interior minister who late last year denounced Dieudonné as "antisemitic and racist" and called on local councils to ban his live shows, said in an interview yesterday that the jour de colère showed that a part of of the "conservative and reactionary right" was now occupying the space left by the FN's attempts to normalise or legitimise itself. "We are witnessing," Valls said, "the constitution of a French Tea Party", though this angry rabble also has distinctively French antecedents in the radical anti-republicanism of the right-wing groupuscules that proliferated in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair at the beginning of the 20th century and polluted French politics during the inter-war years. (A report in Le Monde the other day suggested that Printemps Français was connected to Action française, a descendant of the radical rightist movement of the same name founded in 1899 by Maurice Pujo and Henri Vaugeois.) "What [the jour de colère] has in common with the 1930s," Valls went on, "is this anti-republicanism and violent detestation, in word and deed, of our values and principles."

Now, this heterogeneous amalgam of sometimes competing animuses is too new for anyone to have attempted a serious analysis of its political sociology. And Jean Birnbaum, the editor of Le Monde's book review supplement, implies that this would in any case be a hopeless task—the anger of the "colériques" is the "anger of imbeciles," he says (borrowing a phrase from the writer and one-time devotee of Action française, Georges Bernanos), an empty nihilism entirely disconnected from any larger project. In the past, he argues, such anger would have found a repository either in the Catholic Church or the international communist movement, but not now.

Birnbaum is certainly right that anger alone does not amount to a coherent politics—that's one of the things that makes phenomena such as the "jour de colère" simultaneously so disturbing and fatally easy for mainstream politicians to ignore—but I wonder if he's downplaying the salience of Catholicism in all this. It seems to me that Printemps français and related formations such as "Manif pour tous" ("Demo for all"), which this Sunday organised an enormous demonstration in Paris against the alleged "family-phobia" of the Socialist government, are, in part at least, the political expression, however incohate, of what the historians Hervé Le Bras and Emmanuel Todd call in their book Le mystère français "zombie Catholicism". (Printemps français was formed in March last year, after the first "Manif pour tous" mobilised tens—hundreds, if you believe the organisers—of thousands to march against the legalisation of gay marriage.)

Le Bras and Todd's book, which was published last March, attempts to map the human geography of what one might call the French malaise (the opening sentence reads: "La France ne sent pas bien"—France is not feeling well). They argue that there is a "disequilibrium" between France's "liberal and egalitarian heart", which they argue is in decline, and an increasingly dominant Catholic and "hierarchical" periphery—and successive governments and generations of policymakers have failed to grasp this, with disastrous effects.

This claim about the increasingly dominant Catholic fringe looks highly implausible when one considers the dramatic decline in (Catholic) church attendance since the 1950s. Le Bras and Todd themselves supply the relevant statistics. In 1952, 27 per cent of the French population regularly attended Mass. By 1966, that figure had fallen to 20 per cent. It had fallen to 14 per cent by 1978, to 6 per cent by 1987 and 4.5 per cent by 2006. These figures testify to the "almost complete disappearance of religion in its ritual dimension," they write. But—and this is the really interesting (and provocative) bit of their analysis—Catholicism lives on as a "structuring agent in education and politics".

In other words, Catholicism as "metaphysical belief" may have all but disappeared in France, but it survives as a "social" and, increasingly, political force. This is the "life after death" of "zombie Catholicism". The first Manif pour tous arrived punctually as if to confirm Le Bras and Todd's thesis. Subsequent events have done little to dislodge it.