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As France awaits ‘most consequential’ elections in decades, here’s a look at the Catholic vote

Ballot boxes and electoral packages are seen June 28, 2024, at the 18th district city hall in Paris as local authorities prepare ballots and get polling stations ready to welcome voters for the first round of the early French parliamentary elections. French voters head to the polls on June 30 and July 7. (OSV News photo/Gonzalo Fuentes, Reuters)

PARIS (OSV News) — Political life in France has been in turmoil since the far right’s exceptional score in the European elections June 9.

President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement that same evening that he would dissolve the National Assembly and call early parliamentary elections stunned the entire country, which now awaits what the media calls “its most consequential election in decades.”

The rise of right-wing parties in the European elections was predicted, but few had imagined its scale: 31.4% of the vote went to the National Rally, which grew out of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, and was led after him by his niece, Marine Le Pen, and since 2021 by Jordan Bardella.

The outcome for the right was even higher among practicing and non-practicing Catholics in France, 37% of whom voted for Le Pen and Bardella’s party, according to a June 13 a poll by IFOP, France’s leading opinion polling institute, carried out for the Catholic daily newspaper La Croix.

“The way Catholics vote in general is more or less in line with French society as a whole,” historian Paul Airiau told OSV News. “On the other hand, there are differences when we look more specifically at the vote of practicing Catholics, who represent 7 to 8% of the French population.”

Airiau is a specialist in contemporary Catholicism. In 2019, he joined the socio-historical research team of CIASE, the independent commission on sexual abuse in the church in France, which delivered a decisive report in October 2021.

“Until recently, it was the traditional moderate right that gathered the majority of votes from practicing Catholics,” Airiau explained. “The massive increase in those of them who voted for the far right this time is a surprise.”

According to IFOP, 32% of practicing Catholics voted for National Rally, a number that went up from 14% in the previous European elections in 2019. Ten percent voted for the Proud France party, close to Le Pen’s in its right-wing program. In total, 42% of practicing Catholics voted for far-right lists, more than 37% of the vote that these two parties obtained nationally.

“The National Rally party usually mobilizes its voters around the fight against immigration, a theme with which it attracts the working classes,” Airiau explained. “It emphasizes the fact that immigration is to their detriment,” he said.

“Practicing Catholics, on the other hand, value France as a Christian nation. They are concerned to see it disappearing at an accelerating pace, not least because of the proportion of immigrants they now consider excessive. They feel they are about to become foreigners in their own country. By voting for the far right, they clearly expressed their anger about this,” Airiau said.

“This anger is something new,” Airiau pointed out. “The perception of immigrants has changed in recent years. North Africans who arrived in France in the 1970s were discreet about their religion. But today, their daughters and granddaughters wear Islamic veils and demand visibility.

“Added to this were the terrorist attacks, especially in 2015, for which Islamists claimed responsibility. Today, practicing Catholics fear the influence of Islamists for their children and grandchildren.”

Airiau added that Catholics in France have been irritated in recent years by Pope Francis’ comments on immigration. “Pope Francis talks about hospitality, welcome and charity. But his words clash with the day-to-day reality of those who worry about the continuing arrival of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia, many of them Muslim. Catholics fear a dangerous imbalance,” he said.

Only 12% of practicing Catholics voted for Macron’s party this time, compared with 37% of them in previous European elections. A voter feeling of ideological defeat is to blame, Airiau said.

“In recent years, Catholics have had the impression of going from defeat to defeat on social and ethical issues,” Airiau explained. “And they now feel that Macron is not listening to them at all on these issues. He receives the bishops, but that has no effect afterwards. After enshrining abortion in the constitution last March, Macron immediately launched the end-of-life bill. … Many had the impression that he was opening Pandora’s box, without heeding any of the warnings he received.”

Marine Le Pen, who chairs the National Rally group in the French National Assembly, also voted to enshrine abortion in the French Constitution. “Many practicing Catholic voters preferred to vote for Marion Maréchal’s Proud France party,” Airiau pointed out. Maréchal’s second last name is also Le Pen as she is a granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen and unlike her aunt, Marine, “she clearly assumes her Catholic identity,” Airiau said.

Faced with this turn by practicing Catholics toward the far right, the bishops in France today are “extremely cautious,” the historian said. “Until the 2000s, they almost explicitly rejected any nationalism based on Christianity,” Airiau recalled. “But now, they remain silent. In any case, if they were to speak out, they would be criticized, no matter what they said.”

The early parliamentary elections will take place in France June 30 and July 7, with turnout expected to be high.

Caroline de Sury writes for OSV News from Paris.

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