France's newly elected President Francois Hollande waves from a balcony at his campaign headquarters in Paris May 7, the day after his election. Hollande became the nation's first Socialist president in 17 years. CNS photo/Jean-Paul Pelissier, Reuters

French church counts on stability under new socialist government

By  Jonathan Luxmoore, Catholic News Service
  • June 27, 2012

OXFORD, England - When French voters handed a parliamentary majority to their country's Socialist Party six weeks after electing a socialist Francois Hollande as president, there were fears it could herald a new aggressive secularism in a country noted for strict separation of church and state.

But observers of the French scene discount predictions of church-state conflict and say the priority will be a return to normalcy rather than any new secularist agenda.

"President Hollande wants to reaffirm the French state's traditional position on religions and churches," explained Laurent Douzou, professor of contemporary history at the Lyon Institute of Political Studies.

"His predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, sought to take us in a new direction. In this sense, these elections are likely to mean a swing back toward our country's established way of doing things," Douzou told Catholic News Service.

Hollande became France's first Socialist head of state in three decades, defeating the incumbent center-right Sarkozy May 6 after just one term in office. His victory could signal a leftward shift in European politics and a partial move away from harsh austerity programs adopted since the 2008 financial crisis.

Hollande's election has implications for the Catholic Church, to which two-thirds of France's 60 million inhabitants traditionally belong. Still, his victory shouldn't be seen as a vote against Christianity, but as a wish to restore a secular status quo that has served Christians and non-Christians well, observers said.

French voters chose Hollande largely because of disillusionment with the political process. He has signaled his preference for a secular society and strict neutrality toward religious faith.

Hollande's actions as mayor of Tulle in France's traditionally Catholic Correze region may serve as a precursor to his presidency. While he avoided religious ceremonies, he helped restore local churches and funded Catholic charities alongside their state-run counterparts.

If the new president plans to strengthen secularity, he is expected to act cautiously, said Dominique Greiner, editor of France's Catholic daily, La Croix. Greiner recalled the angry protests that erupted when France's last socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, attempted to restrict funding for private -- mostly Catholic -- schools in the 1980s.

Greiner also pointed to some paradoxes.

Though conspicuously defending Christianity and family values, the outgoing Sarkozy, a Catholic, did little to help the church in practice, Greiner said. Sarkozy also acted against Catholic teaching in his tough handling of asylum seekers and immigrants and support for the 2010 mass deportation of Roma, Greiner said.

Luc Foisneau, director at France's National Center for Scientific Research, said most French citizens are more interested in containing militant Islam than in deeper church-state issues, while Catholics are more concerned with local parish issues such as the shortage of priests than with seeking wider privileges for their church.

"Hollande sensed the French left had neglected the issue of laicite (secularity), so he's sent a clear signal that it remains important," Foisneau said.

"Most French, Catholics included, would prefer to stick with the system they've had for the last century. Although it's required a long struggle, most are now 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," he added.

Still, some of Hollande's stances are expected to pose challenges for the church.

The socialist president has given his backing to same-sex marriage and embryo research. He plans to strengthen France's secular public schools and renegotiate a 2009 accord with the Vatican that gave equal state recognition to Catholic diplomas.

After the election, Msgr. Bernard Podvin, spokesman for the French bishops' conference, urged Hollande to be "humble in victory" and avoid forcing "an unnecessary cleavage" in French society.

Elsewhere, France's conservative Civitas Institute rallied 3,500 Catholics at a demonstration in Paris May 13, vowing to resist the new president's "programmed destruction of the foundations of Christian civilization."

In a message for Hollande's May 15 inauguration in the capital's Elysee Palace, Pope Benedict XVI said he counted on continued respect for France's "noble moral and spiritual traditions."

The pope's summons to create a more just society, promote peace among nations, honor the common good and respect life and dignity provides the French church's "compass" in the months ahead, Msgr. Podvin said.

With Hollande's Socialists holding 314 of the 577 seats in France's National Assembly, the president will be under pressure to follow through on his election pledges. But Hollande and his new government, half of whom are women, have stressed conciliatory aims.

In a May 31 interview with the Le Parisien daily, Vincent Peillon, the new education minister, confirmed plans to create 60,000 teaching jobs to replace those cut under Sarkozy.

About 5,100 of those positions would be at France's Catholic schools, which educate 17 percent of students, Peillon promised. There would be no question of "reigniting a school war," the minister added.

Legislation to permit gay marriage, which has majority support, according to opinion polls, faces tough opposition from the Catholic Church, as well as from Muslims who make up a tenth of France's population.

But this won't be introduced until the autumn, said Jean-Marc Ayrault, the new prime minister, allowing time for passions to cool and compromises to take shape.

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