French President Emmanuel Macron told a meeting of French bishops Monday that he wished to heal Church-State relations in the country, whose particular strain of secularism (“laïcité”) was profoundly colored by the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution and its aftermath.
“A president of the French republic who takes no interest in the Church and its Catholics would be failing in his duty,” Macron told them, saying he wished to enter into a “dialogue of truth” with the Church.
A number of left-wing politicians immediately registered their indignation over Macron’s remarks, with former socialist prime minister Manuel Valls tweeting that “laïcité is France,” adding that French secular identity comes from the 1905 Law ordaining a radical separation of church and state. “The law of 1905, the whole law, nothing but the law,” he remarked.
For his part, the newly-installed Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure echoed Valls’ remarks, noting in a tweet that “laïcité is our showpiece. That is what a president of the republic should be defending.”
The head of the hard-left France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, Jean-Luc Melenchon, called Macron’s remarks “irresponsible.”
“Mr. President, the relationship with the churches has not been damaged! It was destroyed in 1905! To question the separation of the churches and the State is to open the door of politics to the fundamentalists of all religions. It’s irresponsible,” he said in a tweet.
“Macron in full-on metaphysical delirium. Intolerable. One expects a president, one gets a little priest,” Melenchon said in another tweet.
In his personal blog Tuesday, Melenchon said that “disfiguring laïcité would be the undoing of the Republic.”
France’s virulent form of secularism, which sought to bring about a post-religious society, is characterized by something more than indifference toward religion or a legitimate separation of political and religious institutions and holds that faith has no place in the public square.
The 1789 French National Assembly decreed the appropriation of church lands and the prohibition of monastic vows, but the revolution soon led to the massacre of priests and religious sisters (notably the September Massacres of 1792), severe religious persecution, the dissolution of the church in France, and the establishment of the Cult of Reason.
Anticlericalism in France was at a historic high point in 1905 when the French chamber of deputies passed the law on the separation of churches and the state, considered the “backbone” of French laïcité. Among other features, the law expropriated churches and other religious buildings, declaring them property of the state and local governments. The government then would put these buildings at the disposal of religious organizations, provided that they continue to use the buildings for worship purposes.
The “effectual end” of he 1905 law “was the crippling of the Catholic religion as an institutional force” in French public life.
In response to Macron’s statement, the current Interior Minister, Gerard Collomb, who oversees government relations with religious groups, said that the president’s remarks did not undermine France’s secular traditions but rather reflected the need for greater spiritual awareness.
“What he is saying is that for human beings, there is not only the material world but also the search for absolute values, for spirituality, to find meaning in life,” he said.
“It is perhaps a new tone but in no way does it break with the great tradition of secularism,” he said.
Mr. Macron himself has been described as a “zombie Catholic” who was raised in a non-religious household but asked to be baptized Catholic when he was 12 years old. He is not a regular churchgoer.
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