A RECENT FRENCH POLL shows that majorities of both practicing Catholics and Protestants support France's pro-American president Nicolas Sarkozy, even as his overall polling numbers have dropped.
Reportedly, 61 percent of practicing Catholics in France favorably view Sarkozy, as do 51 percent of Protestants. Protestants in large congregations, which are likely to be evangelical, favor Sarkozy by 62 percent. Non-practicing Catholics favor him by 44 percent, while only 30 percent of Muslims like him and 29 percent of Jews.
Sarkozy, very unlike most of his predecessors, has spoken openly of religion's importance in French public life. An infrequently practicing "cultural Catholic," Sarkozy's father came from a Hungarian Protestant family. His maternal grandfather was a Sephardi Jew who converted to Catholicism.
A French Protestant newspaper, Réforme, highlighted the latest poll because France's small Protestant community traditionally has aligned with the secular political left, which shared its historic distrust of the alliance between the political right and Roman Catholicism. Two recent Socialist premiers have hailed from Protestant backgrounds.
The French Protestant shift to the right may reflect appreciation for Sarkozy's public affirmation of religion, distress over extreme secularism, increased evangelical influence among France's ancient and once theologically liberal Protestant communities, and concern over Islam's growing role within France. Five to 10 percent of France is now Muslim. Eighty percent identify as Catholic, 2 percent as Protestant, and 1 percent as Jewish.
Philip Jenkins, the author of The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity has observed that immigrant communities in France and elsewhere in Europe are often portrayed as monolithically Islamic only because the immigrants are from predominantly Muslim countries. But Jenkins observes that many of these mostly African immigrants are in fact evangelical Christians who are not demographically included among France's historic Protestants, who are Lutheran or Reformed (Calvinist). Interestingly, Sarkozy's support is stronger among the mostly Lutheran Protestants of the east (68 percent), such as in Alsace, than the mostly Reformed of southern France (45 percent). But these distinctions may be more regional than religious.
Sarkozy's lack of support from French Jews is interesting, given his own family Jewish background, and his hard-line stance as French interior minister against the Islamic rioters of fall 2005 in the Parisian suburbs. French Jews, even more so than French Protestants, have traditionally aligned with the political left. They could also be concerned by Sarkozy's suggestion, since set aside, of public funding for Islamic groups, which he has justified as an antidote to overseas funding from radical Islamist sources.
Last Fall, Sarkozy upset secular opinion by suggesting that French schools teach more comprehensively about world religions. More controversially, the French president gave a speech last December in Rome with Pope Benedict XVI as an audience, in which Sarkozy hailed France's Catholic heritage. France needs "convinced Catholics who are not afraid to say who they are and what they believe," Sarkosy declared, citing "religious convictions" as a counterweight to hyper secularism. Obliquely, he commended enlightenment by "opinions that reference norms and convictions which are free from immediate contingencies."
With the Pope listening, Sarkozy announced, "My presence among you this evening is a testimony of France's faithfulness to her history and to one of the major sources of its civilization." He continued: "Faced with the disappearance of values, and with the upheavals our societies are experiencing, I want to say by my presence that we need the contribution of the Catholic Church, as of the other great religious and spiritual doctrines, to enlighten our choices and construct our future."
Sarkozy concluded: "It is in the interests of the Republic that there exist also a moral reflection inspired by religious convictions. First because secular morality always runs the risk of wearing itself out or changing into fanaticism when it isn't backed up by hope that aspires to the infinite."
Echoing his 2004 book, The Republic, Religions and Hope, a copy of which he gave the pope, Sarkozy said, "A person who believes is a person who hopes. The republic has an interest in having many men and women who hope." Such verbiage would be mild stuff for an American politician. But any public affirmation of Christianity is deeply disturbing to France's long-time reigning secularists. Paris's Le Monde newspaper featured on its front page a cartoon of Sarkozy dressed as a bishop, beside an American flag draped and cross bearing President Bush, who is telling the Pope: "I think this guy is stealing my job."
Even more predictably, France's daily Communist newspaper bemoaned that Sarkozy had behaved like a subservient "altar boy" and "abandoned all reserve and placed his status as a Catholic above that of the head of a secular state." Such criticism probably has helped Sarkozy among France's active Christians.
Explaining the recent poll showing Christian support for Sarkozy, Olivier Abel of the Institute of Protestant Theology in Paris explained to Reforme that the French left had too long defined itself as anti-religious. "It does not perceive, does not develop and does not recognize the contribution of Christianity in its genetic inheritance," Abel said. "The Left wants nothing to do with Christianity, even though it owes it everything. " Abel linked the left's ingratitude towards religion to Sarkozy's popularity among practicing Christians, especially among previously left-aligned Protestants.
"The image of a Protestant as a man or woman of the left no longer corresponds to reality," Jean-Paul Willaime, who teaches Protestant studies at the Sorbonne, similarly told Réforme. As described by Ecumenical News International, Willaime pointed to a convergence of political opinion among French Christians towards the right. And evangelical influence among French Protestants is pushing that process along. Willaime explained that the traditional Protestant emphasis on a strong work ethic and personal responsibility also fuel support for Sarkozy's brand of free market economics.
French Christians are hardly organizing into anything close to America's Religious Right. But in mostly secular France, Christian belief and practice still seem to have surprising political relevance.
Mark D. Tooley directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy's program for United Methodists.