Paris is well worth a Mass. Or maybe not.
A few weeks ago, President Emmanuel Macron met with Pope Francis at the Vatican to talk about the future of Europe and the results of COP26. But it was also a gesture by the French president towards French Catholics who could play a role in the upcoming presidential elections.
President Emmanuel Macron was in Rome a few days ago to sign the Treaty of Quirinal, which deepens the strategic partnership between Italy and France. On this occasion, Macron also met with Pope Francis. The two spoke about biodiversity, solidarity with developing countries, and the debt of African countries. The French President also renewed his invitation to the Pope to visit France.
The press, however, saw the visit as an attempt to win over Catholic voters five months before the presidential elections. For the center-left Le Monde newspaper, “the Republic may be secular, but France is Christian,” and “Catholicism occupies a special place in its history.” For the left-leaning Libération, the visit tried to improve relations between Catholics and Macron, after the pandemic damaged them.
How many Catholics are there in France? What is their importance in terms of elections? According to a 2019 survey by the Observatoire de la laïcité, 48% of French people describe themselves as Catholics. However, another survey by sociologists Claude Dargent and Olivier Galland shows that only 7% of respondents go to Mass at least once a month. In 2008, the figure was 9%. The two researchers add that the total number of Catholics in France in 2018 was 32%, of which 19% were non-practicing
These voters are older but highly engaged in political participation. Traditionally, they vote for the moderate right. In 2007, the more practicing Catholics he had (50% of regular practicing Catholics), the higher the percentage of voting intentions for Nicolas Sarkozy. In 2012 it was almost the same when Sarkozy ran against François Hollande and lost.
In 2017, former Prime Minister François Fillon sought to secure a large share of the vote among practicing Catholics, an inevitable constituency for the moderate right, in order to reach the runoff for the presidency. 28% of those who describe themselves as Catholics voted for him. For Macron and Marine Le Pen, it was 22% each. Most importantly, he received 46% of the vote from practicing Catholics, compared to 19% who voted for Macron, 15% for Le Pen, and 12% for Mélenchon.
During the 2017 presidential campaign, then-candidate Macron tried to win over these voters. This was a difficult task, as Macron had been economy minister during the last years of François Hollande’s presidency. During Hollande’s term, tensions between the French president and Catholics were at an all-time high over the same-sex marriage law.
In an interview with the Catholic newspaper La Croix, Macron asserted that decisions on ethical issues would “not be a priority” if he won. He also said in an interview with Le Point magazine that the people of La Manif pour Tous had been “humiliated.” La Manif pour Tous was the political movement that had organized the big demonstrations against the law.
After becoming president, the relationship between Macron and Catholics has gradually changed. On April 9, 2018, Macron gave a speech at the Bernardins Cistercian College in Paris in which he tried to “repair the damaged relationship between church and state.” It was the first time a president had visited the bishops’ conference since the 1905 law separating church and state.
The 2019 European Parliament elections mark a turning point in the relationship between Macron and Catholics. While the traditional party for Catholic voters, the center-right Les Républicains, turned to identity politics and moved further to the right, Macron’s party occupied the political space vacated by Les Républicains. This allowed the French president to achieve a remarkable result among Catholics: 37% (43% among core voters). Les Républicains is far behind with 22%.
However, there have been many complications in relations between Catholics and Macron over the past two years. The Catholic bishops criticized the controversial law that is supposed to fight “separatism” in French society. According to them, it “undermines” freedom of religion and association. Macron’s party also proposed a new law giving people with a terminal illness the right to euthanasia and approved a new bioethics law opening up medically assisted procreation to couples and single women. Finally, the suspension of the fairs over Covid-19 sparked new criticism.
Convincing Catholics could be a difficult task for President Macron. According to a poll by Ifop — Le Pèlerin, Catholics see security and the fight against terrorism as priorities. However, health remains the most important issue. Only 25% of Catholics surveyed want bioethical issues to be at the heart of the political debate.