In the French system of electing a president, there is not one but two rounds of voting to decide a winner. We now stand in between those two rounds. I once heard it said that this system was designed to allow the electorate to first vote with their heart, then with their head. On 7th May, we will see who is the choice of the head: Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen.
So what is going on in the minds of the French people right now? These are some of the core issues being hammered out in France….
First, like Britain, France is a secular democracy. Unlike Britain, France has enshrined this secular identity at the heart of its constitutional life since the mid-19th Century. Laïcité is often used to denote the absence of religious involvement in public life, but France is facing a serious political and cultural crisis over the place of religion – and in particular religious minorities. As in Britain, the historic, majority Church is in steep decline. However, in France the rhythm of the Christian year, its feasts and fasts, and its personalities, still colour the national and local social fabric. And yet, very few of the majority of French people who claim a Catholic identity actually go to Mass on Sunday. The importance of Sunday is as a day of difference, which feeds a healthy work-life balance, and this is hard-wired into the DNA of French life.
Like Britain, France is multi-cultural and ethnically diverse; it is also deeply divided, economically and socially. France likes to think of itself as an instinctively egalitarian society and these divisions accentuate a deep-rooted disorientation at the core of France’s sense of itself. There may still be widespread pride in France’s history, language and traditions, and the conviction that these things should be robustly defended from ‘alien’ influences. Nonetheless, for most French people, the ideals of La République are simply not working for them.
Second, a recent survey revealed that the French are more concerned about unemployment (currently at 10%) than immigration. But 45% of those questioned claimed they ‘no longer felt at home in France’ – which amplifies the perception that immigration has a bearing on unemployment. Although the French prize national unity highly, regional loyalties are often stronger. The more remote and economically disadvantaged departéments feel a greater dislocation from Paris. Immigrants, and those whose ethnic heritage is from former French colonies in Africa, are marked-out for being resistant to integration into French life (not unlike some British residents in rural France!) This seems compounded by the fact that many minorities are housed by the State in social housing on the outskirts of towns and cities. They were described by the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls (in January 2015), as ‘places of territorial, social and ethnic apartheid.’ This reflection of how many French people see their country could equally apply to several British regions that voted for Brexit last year.
The perceived impact of immigration on the divisions in French society is opening an ever-widening gap between France’s long-championed secular stance and those for whom Laïcité has become a blunt weapon. There is a tendency within France’s egalitarian psyche to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ mentality. This can appear as a lack of patience towards minorities in a multi-cultural society. The menacing image of two muscular police officers instructing a diminutive Muslim woman to remove her ‘burkini’ on the beach at Cannes last summer has become iconic. It illustrates how overt demonstrations of religious identity are causing discomfort in French public life, particularly where Islam is concerned.
The French education minister, Najat Valland-Belkacem, recently announced an overhaul in the way France’s secular perspective is taught in schools, by emphasising its core purpose is to protect the population from one dominant dogma. However, this sits uneasily with President Hollande’s declaration (after the murder of Father Jaques Hammel) that ‘an attack on the Catholic Church is an attack on France.’ Indeed, after the murder of Gendarme Xavier Jugelé, the officials of the Paris prefecture where he served, turned out in force for a televised memorial Mass from Notre Dame. It only strengthens the suspicion among the Muslim minority that Laïcité has its sights trained on them.
French politics has experienced great upheaval. Both the traditional parties, the Socialists and Republicans, who have shared power for decades, have failed to get a candidate through to the second round. The choice is now between the far right populist, anti-immigrant, anti-EU Marine Le Pen and the relatively untried, centrist Macron.
Le Pen’s rhetoric will likely count against her amongst many Christians, even though she is trying to play the cultural Christian card. Macron must address the sincere grievances of many discontented French people if he wants to win. Many may not want to vote for either candidate. What they choose to do on polling day may be crucial.
Heavenly Father, Lord of the Nations, we give you thanks for the great history and culture of France. We pray for the people of France, and the French republic, at this critical time in their national life. We pray for an election characterised by truthfulness, peacefulness and wisdom. We pray that the secular principles of France may be worked out in a way that supports freedom of religion and expression for all. And we pray for a President who will serve the common good for all who live in France and who will contribute strongly to an international order of peace and freedom. Amen.