Much to our surprise in Europe, religion wasn’t a big theme in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, a country that proclaims its trust in God even on its bank notes. It may therefore be puzzling to some Americans to learn that God is back in the political debate on this side of the Atlantic. And that he chose, of all places, France, the sacred land of “laïcité,” the local version of secularism.
The man who brought God — or, more specifically, Christianity — back is François Fillon, a former prime minister who is running in the presidential election in the spring as the nominee of the main center-right Republican Party. Mr. Fillon’s initial platform included a drastic proposal to cut back on public health insurance that caused widespread indignation and forced him to backpedal; to persuade voters that he did not intend to hurt the poorest, Mr. Fillon explained this month that “I am a Gaullist, and furthermore I am a Christian,” and said that as such he would never act against “the respect of human dignity.”
Christian? Did he say Christian? In the media, other politicians were promptly requested to react. The centrist François Bayrou, while pointing out that he was himself “a believer,” was appalled, adding that “in France, for more than a century, the rule has been that you don’t mix politics and religion.”
A former adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy, Henri Guaino, said that Mr. Fillon had committed a “moral error.” And Marine Le Pen of the National Front, sporting around her neck, in lieu of a cross, a heart-shaped silver pendant, said that Mr. Fillon’s “opportunistic use” of his Christianity for political purposes had created “unease.”
“It deeply contradicts secularism and our values,” Ms. Le Pen went on. “To justify a political choice with religious beliefs is shocking: How will we oppose those who, tomorrow, will want to enact policy in the name of their faith — like, for instance, Islam?”
The debate will not go away. Catholics, who took part in mass demonstrations against legalization of gay marriage three years ago, are emerging as a political force in this campaign. In the Republicans’ primary in November, candidates discussed which one of them was closer to Pope Francis’ views on social issues. Campaigning this month in the Socialist primary, the former prime minister Manuel Valls, challenged by a young Muslim woman on the issue of the Islamic veil — which he views as an enslavement of women — described France as “a country with Christian roots that hosts the oldest Jewish community in Europe.”
This fresh enthusiasm for Christianity has less to do with God, though, than with culture and identity. Polls usually show that close to 55 percent of French citizens describe themselves as Roman Catholics (the rest being divided among Muslims, Jews and Protestants), but only 5 percent to 8 percent go to church regularly. An Ipsos study recently commissioned by the Catholic media group Bayard has created a new category of believers: “committed Catholics,” people who don’t necessarily attend church but identify with the Catholic Church through philanthropy, family life or social involvement. This group is said to include 23 percent of the French population.
Though they represent a variety of opinions on matters from migrants to Pope Francis or political orientations, this group can be seen as a potential electoral bloc. “These cultural Catholics have been under the radar screen because polls did not identify them, and because secularized political and media elites did not see them,” Jean-Pierre Denis, the editor of the Catholic weekly La Vie, told me. The socially conservative Mr. Fillon, he said, “has been smart enough to spot them and tap into them.”
Mr. Denis says he has often wondered in the past when French Catholics would turn into a small, organized, misunderstood minority, like the Jewish community. But this is not happening. Experts like him notice a stronger feeling of belonging among French Catholics. One important factor is obviously the rise of Islam, now the second religion in France, and the wave of terrorist attacks carried out by groups claiming to be Islamist fundamentalists. In one of those attacks, an 85-year-old Catholic priest was killed in his church while saying Mass, his throat slit.
As Europe grows more secular and as Islam takes root on the Continent, the face of French Catholicism is evolving. Clearly, the political dividing line for today’s Catholic voters is immigration, along with national identity.
Two powerful books published this month perfectly illustrate this divide: one, “Church and Immigration: The Great Malaise,” by Laurent Dandrieu, an editor of the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles, accuses the Catholic hierarchy of erasing centuries of resistance to Islam. Mr. Dandrieu’s views are shared by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Ms. Le Pen’s young niece and a French Parliament member, who, unlike her aunt, is an openly practicing, very conservative Catholic.
The other, “Identity: The Evil Genius of Christianity,” by the lawyer and blogger Erwan Le Morhedec, adheres to a more tolerant Christian-Democrat line and warns Catholics against the temptation of finding solace in extremism and an aggressive assertion of national identity.
The books have set off a passionate debate within the Catholic media; no doubt the candidates in the general election are now watching this debate closely, probably realizing that their secularism, after all, is not as widely shared in the electorate as they had assumed. Interestingly, the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano recently republished an editorial by Mr. Denis about the two books that clearly took the side of Mr. Le Morhedec’s, the more moderate one. Now — who knows? — maybe not only God, but even the pope will be a factor in the French presidential campaign.
Sylvie Kauffmann, the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde, is a contributing opinion writer.