How Catholic hardliners shaped France’s race for the presidency

Sens Commun Fillon Main

Sens Commun Fillon Main

François Fillon’s abrupt surge from also-ran to hot favourite for the French presidency has cast a spotlight on the role played by Catholic voters and hardline activists in designating a conservative candidate for the Elysée Palace.

In a year of electoral upsets that brought pollsters on both sides of the Atlantic into unprecedented disrepute, the first round of France’s conservative primary largely confirmed the trend – albeit with an important caveat: in France the loudmouthed agitator, who had dominated headlines by playing on voters’ fears, was soundly beaten.

The corollary of Nicolas Sarkozy’s humiliating defeat was the astonishing rise of his former prime minister, François Fillon, who romped to victory with a staggering 44 percent of the ballot, 16 points clear of his nearest rival, Alain Juppé. The two go face-to-face in a run-off on Sunday, with the winner widely tipped to become the next French president.

The race to front the conservative  party in next year’s presidential election had long been billed as a showdown between Sarkozy and the more moderate Juppé. While polls in the last two weeks of the campaign registered a sudden upswing in support for Fillon, nobody anticipated his bounce from distant third to clear frontrunner.

Analysts scrambling to explain such a dramatic upturn have pointed to a number of factors, including Fillon’s strong performances in televised debates, business leaders embracing his “Thatcherite” plans to slash taxes and civil servants, tactical voting by left-wingers keen to shut out Sarkozy, and Catholics coming out in droves to back his socially conservative programme.

Media reports have focused on the latter factor, presenting the pious, mild-mannered father of five as “the candidate of Catholic France”. They have speculated on the role played by anti-gay marriage groups such as the Manif pour tous, and its political offshoot Sens Commun, in drumming up support among Catholic voters.

France’s three Catholicisms

Studying the Catholic vote is notoriously difficult in secular France, where statistics on religious or ethnic criteria are illegal. Fillon, 62, achieved his highest scores in areas with a strong Catholic tradition, such as the western Vendée region, where he picked up 56 percent of the vote. But specialists caution against seeing the Catholic voters as a homogenous block.

“The idea that Fillon owes his victory to the Catholic vote is an illusion, because there is no such thing as a single, unified Catholic vote,” says Yann Raison du Cleuziou, an expert in Catholicism at the University of Bordeaux. “It is an illusion entertained by left-wing commentators and by groups like Sens Commun, who are keen to magnify their role in order to gain more clout among Catholics and the political right.”

Du Cleuziou says one way of looking at the Catholic vote is to break it up into three broad chapels, only one of which would “naturally” favour a candidate like Fillon.

“First, you have a small minority of intransigent, ultra-Catholics, who refuse all compromise with liberal morals and multi-culturalism,” he says. “Throughout the campaign, they have been scathing in their criticism of both Juppé, whom they mocked as a left-winger in disguise, and Fillon, whom they blasted for flip-flopping on abortion.”

The second group, described as “observant Catholics”, account for roughly a third of practising Catholics. “They are attached to the Church’s views on sexuality, families and abortion, but are economically liberal,” he says, referring to an economic platform that, in France, is synonymous with pro-business policies and limited state intervention.

“Though also a minority, this second group is highly organised and motivated, with its own publications and networks,” says du Cleuziou. “They have been outspoken and highly determined in their support for Fillon.”

The final group, a hodgepodge of moderate Catholics, some of whom lean to the centre-left, is numerically larger and more inclined to support Juppé’s consensual notion of a “happy identity”. The problem for Juppé is that they are neither as organised, nor as mobilised, as the observant Catholics who rallied behind Fillon.

Battling gay marriage

The observant Catholics’ extraordinary ability to mobilise support was illustrated, and no doubt amplified, by the huge protest movement that opposed the Socialist government’s plans to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. As lawmakers clashed over the proposed legislation in early 2013, the Manif pour tous (Protest for all) – a pun on the government’s bill, dubbed Mariage pour tous – brought millions of protesters to the streets of Paris and other French cities.

Gay marriage was passed nonetheless, but its foes soon found new battlegrounds: first fighting reproductive assistance for gay couples, and then whipping up public hysteria about the introduction of “gender theory” in school programmes. Some activists spread rumours that teachers were encouraging boys to be girls and girls to be boys. They urged parents to keep their children at home in protest, resulting in significant levels of absenteeism.

While the Manif pour tous has since faded in importance, its success proved that a conservative agenda could drive the kind of mass popular movement that would make any trade union green with envy. Several of its members have sought to carry on the struggle in the political arena, creating offshoots such as Sens Commun, which operates within Les Républicains.

Sens Commun was set up in late 2013 with the stated intent of influencing party policy and weighing on the primary to designate a conservative candidate for the 2017 presidential election. It numbers less than 10,000 members in a party of 240,000, but intense lobbying and tactical voting have helped it seize key positions in the party’s leadership.

Sarkozy, who courted the anti-gay marriage vote upon returning to politics in 2014, was instrumental in helping Sens Commun land as many as six posts on the executive board of Les Républicains. But his subsequent about-face on the issue of gay marriage – turning back on a pledge to repeal the law – proved fatal to the former president, leading Sens Commun to back Fillon instead.

The end of ‘bling-bling’

The group’s fallout with Sarkozy mirrors his fall from grace among observant Catholics. Whether Sens Commun helped cause this demise, or merely tagged on to broader trend, is a matter of conjecture, as is the role played by Sens Commun in Fillon’s stunning first-round victory.

Sens Commun may look like the decisive factor in Fillon’s success, but there is no way of proving this,” says du Cleuziou. “The fact is Fillon’s popularity among many Catholics is perfectly natural.”

In many ways, Fillon is a perfect antidote to the “brash, vulgar” style associated with the former “bling-bling” president, whom conservative Catholics had grown tired of, says du Cleuziou. Unlike Sarkozy, Fillon has never divorced. A father-of-five and a devout parishioner, he dedicated a whole chapter of a recent book to his Catholic faith. Somehow, he also survived a five-year stint as Sarkozy’s prime minister without being touched by any of the scandals that plagued his former boss.

“All in all, he embodies the observant Catholics’ ideal of a politician who is moderate in his conduct but harbours strong convictions,” says du Cleuziou. Such is his personal appeal that Fillon has seemingly been excused for saying he will not challenge gay marriage. Instead, Sens Commun’s champion promises to amend the law in order to ban adoptions by same-sex couples.

In announcing its support for Fillon on September 1, Sens Commun pointed to the “coherence” between their respective ideas. It gave first place to protecting “la famille”, meaning traditional family units with a father and a mother, described as “the cornerstone of all civilised societies”.

In subsequent interviews, its members praised Fillon’s repeated statements on the plight of Christian communities in Syria and Iraq, along with his proposed hard line on dealing with “Islamic totalitarianism”. The group’s president, Christophe Billan, said both Sens Commun and Fillon favoured “a state that is muscular but not obese”.

Sens Commun, which did not return FRANCE 24’s request for an interview, rarely digs any deeper when it comes to policy. Its website, and its numerous interviews and op-eds published in the right-wing press, are full of hazy talk of defending “core values” and the “common good”, and choosing “realism over ideology”.

Its “realism” explains why it supported Fillon and not Jean-Christophe Poisson, a darling of the Manif pour tous but an obscure candidate with no chance of winning the conservative primary (he mustered just 1.5 percent of the primary vote). And while Fillon’s prospects looked dim at first, Sens Communmade it clear it reserved the right to back another candidate in the second round.

Papal anointment

Endorsing Fillon has given Sens Commun a key platform to pursue its agenda. The former prime minister has made ample room for the movement in his campaign, naming three of its members asspokespersons: one each in the fields of “family and values”, “business” and “environment”.

“Without Sens Commun, Fillon would not have given so much importance to family issues in his programme,” says du Cleuziou. The activist group, he adds, has acted as a “spur, encouraging the candidate to send clear signals to observant Catholics, who were thus highly mobilised”.

Attempts to reach out to this influential segment of the conservative electorate may also explain Fillon’s muddled remarks on abortion. While he had previously described abortion as a “basic right” of women, he said in June: “It’s not what I meant. What I meant is that it’s a right no one will reverse. But philosophically, given my faith, I cannot approve of abortion.”

The apparent contradiction has handed Juppé, 71, a line of attack, and prompted an unusually heated exchange between the two soft-spoken politicians. In a desperate bid to close the 16-point gap between the two, the mayor of Bordeaux, who is seen as more moderate, has sought to portray Fillon as backward and ambiguous on social issues.

“That’s the difference between us. While I consider it [abortion] to be a basic right, he [Fillon] wrote as much and then came back on it,” Juppé told Europe 1 radio this week, demanding that his opponent “clarify his position”. In a curt reply, Fillon jabbed: “I never thought my friend Alain Juppé would stoop so low.”

In a bizarre twist, both candidates invoked some form of papal anointment, claiming their views were consistent with the pope’s – a highly unusual step for presidential candidates in France’s staunchly secular Republic.

“I am closer to the word of Pope Francis than to Sens Commun or the Manif pour tous,” Juppé told supporters. His opponent promptly replied: “I am not sure he has really listened to Pope Francis, because on most of the issues Alain Juppé uses to attack me, the pope says much the same as me.”

Juppé’s dig at Sens Commun and the Manif pour tous appeared calculated to mobilise centrist and left-wing voters against Fillon. It played on negative perceptions of the anti-gay marriage movement, which has consistently struggled to shake off accusations of homophobia and racism (the latter directed at the black minister, Christiane Taubira, who penned the gay marriage bill).

Those accusations resurfaced this week, when the conservative primary got caught up in a row involving a poster campaign promoting contraception for gay men. Egged on by the Manif pour tous, a dozen conservative mayors decided to pull the posters, citing the need to protect “good morals”.

Defending the mayors’ actions, lawmaker Isabelle Le Callenec, who heads the “Women with Fillon” support group, said the posters were perceived by many as an “incitement” to homosexuality and adultery. She was promptly rebuked in parliament by Health Minister Marisol Touraine, for whom a serious health issue had become “hostage to a reactionary order from a bygone era”.

Fillon himself had a somewhat jumbled take on the issue. He told BFMTV he would authorise the posters if he were in charge of a municipality, but added that he understood the recalcitrant mayors. He then sought to turn the tables on his opponent by noting that one of the mayors was a Juppé supporter.

Critics of Juppé’s strategy warn that he risks further alienating Catholic voters by attacking his rival’s “extremely traditionalist views” on women, families, marriage and abortion. But du Cleuziou says the mayor of Bordeaux, who has also touted his Catholic credentials in a recent book, has little left to lose.

“Juppé knows the observant Catholics are already behind his opponent,” he explains. “Which is why he is exploiting a fault line within French Catholicism in a bid to rally support from more moderate Catholics.”