The French have far more earthly matters on the brain these days than the separation between church and state. At the top of their list is figuring out how to get to and from work amid the rotating railway strikes paralyzing the country’s public transportation system.
Since April 3, workers at the state-owned Société nationale des chemins de fer français (SCNF) have held several strike days and plan 30 more of them by the end of June. They are protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to end costly job-for-life guarantees and pensions and open up the rail sector to more private competition. The strikes have turned all of France into a commuter’s hell, but Mr. Macron insisted this week that it would be “political hypocrisy” to turn back now.
Eleven months into his presidency, Mr. Macron is proving that he is nothing if not a reformer. After having tackled France’s rigid labour code and overhauled its tax system, he’s now taken up electoral reform and promised to slash the number of seats in the National Assembly by 30 per cent. Indeed, there is no sacred cow Mr. Macron seems unwilling to question – up to and including the official separation of church and state entrenched in French law since 1905.
The 40-year-old French President has “a taste for transgression,” Le Figaro newspaper noted this week after Mr. Macron delivered an unprecedented speech to French bishops in which he evoked France’s Christian roots and called on Catholics to engage more in public life.
After “braving the skeptics” to appear before them, Mr. Macron told the bishops that he shared their “feeling that the ties between the Church and the state have been damaged and that it is important for you, as for me, to repair them.” Noting that debating France’s Christian roots is like debating the sex of angels, he added: “What’s important is the sap. And I am persuaded that the Catholic sap must now and always contribute to the life of our nation.”
That the president of a republic born of a bloody break with the Church would cozy up to Catholic bishops was in itself controversial. But what Mr. Macron said was downright heretical to those on the French left for whom secularism is the state religion.
“Mr. President, the ties with the churches aren’t damaged! They were broken in 1905!” tweeted the leader of the far-left France Unbowed, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. “Calling into question the separation of the churches from the State opens the political door to fundamentalists of all religions. It is irresponsible.”
This was not the first time Mr. Macron had sought to rehabilitate the much-maligned image of organized religion in France. It’s been a life-long preoccupation of his. His biographers have made hay of his decision, at the age of 12, to be baptized in the Catholic Church despite the reticence of his non-practising parents. In New Year’s remarks this year, he criticized the “metaphysical vacuum” demanded by purists of French secularism. “The Republic demands of no one to forget his faith,” he said.
Needless to say, Mr. Macron’s latest remarks have unleashed plenty of soul-searching in a society that loves to debate the meaning, of lack thereof, of life. Just what, after all, is Mr. Macron trying to prove by casting one of the founding principles of the French Republic – secularism – in such a critical light?
The Catholic Church remains in relatively good shape in France in spite of the country’s long history of anti-clericalism. French Catholics are a politically powerful constituency and their mobilization helps explain why gay marriage was legalized later in France than one might have expected given the country’s laissez-faire attitudes toward sex.
There is little doubt, however, that Mr. Macron would like to see a greater spiritual dimension in French public life, if only to temper the fatalism that seems to be a French character trait. After all, it’s hard to persuade voters that the sacrifices he is asking of them are worth the effort if everybody’s a nihilist. The ethicist in Mr. Macron is also keen to bring faith considerations to bear as France debates whether to legalize medical aid in dying and surrogacy.
To avoid any further backlash against the country’s fast-growing Muslim population, already the target of discrimination and scapegoating in the wake of terrorist attacks, Mr. Macron is also seeking to reassure French Catholics that their religion continues to have special status in France at a time when mosques seem to be popping up in every neighbourhood.
Mr. Macron, it seems, is not just a reformer. By French standards, he’s a subversive.