Gavin Mortimer

François Fillon could become the face of France’s Catholic revival

François Fillon could become the face of France's Catholic revival
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It strikes me that it's not much fun being a Catholic in France these days. Strolling back to my apartment in Paris on Christmas Eve, for example, I passed my local church. Inside a midnight Mass was in progress; outside a policeman stood guard.

It was the same across France, an army of gun-toting men and women protecting the nation's cathedrals and churches. They'll be back at Easter, and on the Ascension and the Assumption. For how long? Who knows how long the country that is known as 'the eldest daughter of the church' because of its Christian heritage will need to protect its flock.

There's been just one fatal attack on a church in France since the Islamists began their terror campaign, the brutal slaying of an 84-year-old priest in his Normandy church last July. But that's not for want of trying. Two other attacks have been thwarted, the first in April 2015 and the second last September when a female terrorist cell targeted Notre-Dame cathedral. On both occasions the failure was because of the perpetrators' incompetence rather than the security forces' intelligence.

These incidents are reported by the mainstream French media but more minor acts of vandalism and violence against Christian places of worship are largely ignored. In contrast, if a mosque is attacked it's headline news. But then sections of the press are convinced there is an Islamophobe in every wardrobe in the same way Joseph McCarthy believed there was a red under every bed.

But official statistics compiled by the French government reveal another narrative. In 2008, for example, the Ministry of Interior disclosed that there were 13 criminal acts perpetrated on Muslim places of worship, and 266 on Christian ones. In 2014, Christian buildings or symbols were attacked 673 times, representing 83 per cent of the 807 religiously-motivated incidents that year in France. And it looks like 2017 will follow a similar pattern with the elaborate nativity scene on display at Saint-Étienne's St-Charles cathedral deliberately set alight at the weekend.

This explains in part why Catholicism in France is experiencing something of a renaissance after years of dwindling congregations. In 1952, 81 per cent of the French population declared themselves Catholic, a percentage that had fallen to 64 per cent by 2010. But last year Odon Vallet, a specialist in religion, told France TV that 'since the terrorist attacks...there are people who were no longer practising but are returning little by little to the church. They're returning to the ceremonies because they have a desire to affirm their Christian identity'.

In fact the Catholic revival in France began with the introduction in November 2012 of the same-sex marriage bill, an act that brought hundreds of thousands of Catholics (and other faiths) onto the streets to voice their opposition and gave them a cause behind which to rally in the face of a Socialist government that they felt regarded them with thinly-disguised contempt.

Catholics have started to hit back, playing the liberal elite at their own game by coining the term 'Christianophobe' to highlight the discrimination they claim they face on a regular basis, especially now they are being specifically targeted by Islamists. 'Break the cross' was the call-to-arms adorning the front cover of Isis's magazine in August, a week after two of their number had cut the throat of Father Hamel.

At such a time French Catholics needed to hear strong words from their leaders, but instead they listened in 'stupefaction' as Pope Francis declared: 'I don't like to talk about Islamic violence...terrorism grows when there is no other option and when money is made a god and it, instead of the person, is put at the centre of the world economy. That is the first form of terrorism.' Neither of the priest's killers came from an impoverished background and the Pope's ill-judged comments were seen by many in France as proof of his alarming naivety at the threat posed to their religion by radical Islam.

Days after the traumatic killing of Father Hamel, several policemen in body armour dragged a priest down the aisle of his Parisian church after he staged a sit-in to protest at its demolition. The government defended the tactless action with a spokesman declaring that 'the law is the law for everybody'. Really? Would the Socialist government have dared sanction the manhandling of a law-abiding imam for staging a peaceful protest?

For many Catholics it was another example of the government's Christianophobia, a word appropriated by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen of the Front National who, unlike her aunt, Marine, is a devout Catholic. 'We have our eyes closed to the huge rise in Christianophobe acts,' she said in a speech last year, 'There exists an anti-white racism of which France never speaks'.

Le Pen's grandfather, former FN leader Jean-Marie, was heavily criticised by the Catholic Church in the 1980s for his anti-immigration stance, and Catholics traditionally voted for the centre-right. But times have changed and an opinion poll in 2013 disclosed that ten per cent of Catholics under the age of 35 identified with the FN, compared to just one per cent of the over 65s.

For the older generation of Catholics, François Fillon remains the respectable face of their religion, and he made much of his faith during his successful campaign to win the centre-right nomination for the upcoming presidential election. Recently Fillon's Catholicism has been used by his political opponents as a means to attack him. The former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, currently campaigning to be the Socialist's candidate in the election, said of his rival this week: 'For the first time a politician has defined his project as a Catholic one...we are a country with Christian roots, with one of the oldest Jewish communities and where Islam is the second religion, but we are also a secular country. To qualify his project as Catholic is contrary to what we are and it's going to increase sectarianism.'

That's a questionable claim. Fillon's belief in the importance of conservative values is actually likely to attract voters from the Jewish and Muslim communities, men and women who hold similar views. What's more, they're more likely to respect and hence vote for a faithful man than a faithless one, whatever his religion.