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Sat May 6, 2017, 09:13 AM


The Specter of Catholic Identity in Secular France

Marine Le Pen has invoked the heritage of the Church to explain the core of her nation’s identity. What role does religion really play in this high-stakes election?

4:50 AM ET

Marine Le Pen has a complicated relationship with Catholicism. The twice divorced leader of the National Front, France’s far-right nationalist party, has spoken in favor of women’s abortion rights and won gay and lesbian support. She has doubts about Pope Francis, and during the first round of the French election, she criticized her conservative Catholic opponent Francois Fillon for “the opportunistic use of that faith to defend a certain political line.” This, she said, undermines the principles of French secularism, or laďcité, and is “contrary to our values.”

And yet Le Pen heads a party (despite having temporarily stepped down as National Front leader to focus on the elections) whose mascot is the Catholic saint Joan of Arc; this religious figure stands in contrast to Marianne, the secular symbol of the French republic who represents liberty and reason. Le Pen claims she has “a strong faith,” presumably referring to the Catholicism with which she was raised, and feels “fortunate in that I have never doubted it.” And when she defines French identity, she points to the Church at its core: “The principles we fight for are engraved in our national motto: liberty, equality, fraternity,” she declared at a rally. “That stems from the principles of secularization resulting from a Christian heritage.”

Le Pen’s success in the recent round of voting for France’s next president, which will go to a run-off on Sunday, marks a resurgence of nationalist populism in the country. While religion isn’t necessarily driving French policy debates or voting behavior, Le Pen’s campaign illustrates how nominal religious values can be used as an argument for closed borders and stronger national identity.

The National Front has always had a mixed religious identity. In the early days of the party, which was founded by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, “fundamentalist Catholics … were a moderately strong tendency within the party,” said Rogers Brubaker, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. But “there were also … anti-Christian paganists” in the party, he added, and “those who were indifferent to religion and much more concerned about immigration.”


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