Is France, born-again Christian, seeking its identity in the conversion of a Germanic barbarian fifteen centuries ago? Is freedom of movement limited to capital and forbidden for labor? Can racism be publicly asserted half a century after the Holocaust? These questions were raised by three French events: the visit of Pope John Paul II for the commemoration of the baptism of King Clovis; the storming by the gendarmes of a Paris church filled with immigrants; and, last but not least, the repeated proclamation by Jean-Marie Le Pen of his belief in the "inequality of the races." This provocative profession of faith, though unsurprising in the mouth of the xenophobic leader of the National Front, shook France because it broke a taboo. The debate is now on whether the party should be banned or its leader sued and, if necessary, legislation passed for this purpose. But before moving to such serious matters, let us start with the farcical.
Comedy of Conversion
Even the date does not seem to fit. We know that Clovis, king of the Salian Franks (one of the Germanic tribes), got converted. Legend has it that while in battle he promised the Christian God of his wife that he would embrace the faith if he won, which he did. Occupying what is now Belgium and northern France, competing with other invaders in the conquest of Gaul, the ruthless Clovis. had less romantic reasons to strike a deal with the Christian church. The latest studies suggest that the commemoration should take place two or three years from now. Almost certainly Clovis was baptized around Christmas.Yet on September 22, Pope John Paul II celebrated a mass in honor of Clovis's baptism in Reims cathedral.
The source of the initial political trouble was the President himself, Jacques Chirac, for whom electioneering appears to be second nature. On a visit to the Vatican at the beginning of the year, with the Catholic vote in mind, he trotted out old clichés about "France, the eldest daughter of the church" and gave the impression that he was concocting some pact with the Pope. In a country where strict separation of powers between the state and the church was established in 1905 after battles so bitter that the wounds are still unhealed, the alarm was sounded at once. The defenders of the laïcité, that is, a scrupulously secular regime, asked about public money being spent on a private cult and reminded the government of the neutrality of the state.
For Chirac the game was no longer worth the candle. If France is nominally Catholic, only about a tenth of the population is actually practicing. The Catholic Church, its royalist dreams abandoned, has long resigned itself to the bourgeois republic. What it now wants from the state is as much money as it can get for its schools in order to preserve its declining ideological influence. Incidentally, for this task, the reactionary Polish Pope, the scourge of abortion and arch-enemy of condoms even in the age of AIDS, is probably on balance–for all his past charisma–a drawback rather than an asset.
In any case, for Catholics this was no time for confrontation, and the Pope's fifth French journey, which for a spell looked like a potential crusade, was turned into a pilgrimage. The President came to greet the distinguished visitor but took care to stress he did so in the name of a "secular republic." John Paul II traveled to the most conservative regions of France; including the Vendee of anti-revolutionary fame, and he duly repeated his horror of abortion. Yet the mood, on the whole, was ecumenical. The Catholic Church, with its capacity for organization, brought some 180,000 people.to Reims for the well-staged mass, but the Pope, obviously in pain and at the end of his tether, carefully avoided political implications. The offensive clearly canceled, the defenders could not mobilize many people for a protest march in Paris. The much-heralded war of religion finally did not take place.