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Flag-waving Fillon breaks the mould

10 March 2017

In French politics, Roman Catholicism is returning to the surface, says Paul Vallely


Candidate: Francois Fillon delivers a speech on International Women's Day

Candidate: Francois Fillon delivers a speech on International Women's Day

FRANÇOIS FILLON’s questionable practice of using public money to employ members of his family has drawn attention away from something more interest­ing about him. If elected, he would be one of the few French presidents who has placed his reli­gious affiliations at the forefront of his political identity.

Ever since the French Revolution, his nation has been suspicious about religion in public life. The political paradigm of “laïcité” — the notion that the State should be free from religious in­­­fluences — is so strong that avowed Roman Catholics have rarely occupied the Élysée Palace. Charles de Gaulle was one in the 1960s; before that, it was Patrice de MacMahon in the 1870s. Now, at a time when secularism is supposedly on the rise in France, comes M. Fillon, who launched his candidacy with a book that included a chapter on his faith.

His political opponents have tried to make capital from his opposition to abortion and to adop­tion by gay men. They have raised the spectre of the return of clerical power. M. Fillon has given no indication of anything like that, but his Catholic flag-waving has raised questions about the degree to which Catholicism remains integral to the country’s national identity. After years in the background of French politics, it has resur­faced. With fears about immigration and Islamic terrorism, Catholicism has become a point of differentiation between conservatives and the right-wing populism of Marine Le Pen’s more secularist Front National.

This complex relationship between religion, race, and politics, in France and elsewhere, lies at the heart of the production of George Bernard Shaw’s St Joan, which was shown on National Theatre Live recently. Shaw, writing just after the First World War, filled it with contrasts between the individual and authority, personal freedom and community, idealism and realpolitik, and fanaticism and compromise. Joan of Arc’s stubborn individualism, he even hints, made her one of the first Protestant martyrs, as well as a proto-suffragist and feminist.

Shaw is too good a dramatist to let his socialist ideology play all the good tunes. And Josie Rourke’s production ensures that the drama has no real villains, only individuals trapped within an unyielding system. Yet, with modern eyes, it is hard not to see Joan as a religious fanatic whose actions resonate uncomfortably with jihadism.

Nor is it clear why we should be sympathetic to the religious nationalism of Joan while despising that of the imperialist English, personified in the play by the Daily Mail-reading Brexiteer chaplain to the Bishop of Winchester.

What all this brings home is the extent to which fanaticism and jihadism have now sub­verted more profound discourse about the part played by religion in inspiring the values that undergird a civilised polity.

It is only a few years since we were talking about the influence of the Christian philosopher John Macmurray on Tony Blair, the interaction between Jim Wallis and George W. Bush, or Pope Benedict’s musings on the need for a balance between faith and reason in his address to the House of Commons. How sad that all that feels such an age away.

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