The French Counter-Revolution

Published May 14, 2015

Catholic Herald (UK)

The last country you’d expect to see a vibrant socially conservative and Catholic movement emerge from would be France, with its reputation for entrenched secularism and libertinism. And yet, this is exactly what La Manif Pour Tous (or Manif, for short), the mass-protest movements against France’s Socialist government’s same-sex marriage bill, managed to spark. Though the bill eventually passed, the movement managed to put more than a million people on the streets, won real concessions from the government, and more importantly created a new sense of a young, eager and growing Catholic social conservative movement in France.

What gives?

The Manif was an utterly unexpected phenomenon. Nobody anticipated that protests against a same-sex marriage bill would draw more than a few tens of thousands. Instead, the largest protests drew more than a million. Over several weeks, with clockwork-like regularity, the Manif drew large amounts of people in every large city of France to protest against the bill.

Also unexpected was the Manif’s spokeswoman, Frigide Barjot, once known for highly risqué 1980s hit songs, who became the public face of the movement, lending it a patina of cool. Some of the movement’s spokesmen were also faithful Catholic gay people who opposed same-sex marriage in conscience.

While the Manif was officially a secular movement unaffiliated with the Catholic Church, backed by secular groups as well as groups from all major religions, the clear driving force behind the Manif was the French bishops’ conference, which provided money and organisational muscle behind the scenes.

In France, it is an unwritten rule of politics that mass protests will kill a bill even if it has majority support in Parliament and in the polls. That France’s Socialist government made an exception just for social conservatives only energised protesters further. In the end, the government did have to walk back on some important issues: off the table were adoption, surrogacy and in-vitro fertilisation for gay couples, and the government also shelved a planned euthanasia bill.

The Manif also generated spin-off movements, some sad, some fascinating. Le Printemps Français (“French Spring”, after the Arab Spring) became the radicalised wing of the Manif, overheated in its rhetoric and sometimes violent. In contrast, les Sentinelles (“the Watchmen”) organised peaceful, candlelit sit-ins and poetry readings in front of government buildings ­– some of which, not having been approved by government authorities, led to arrests. Tugdual Derville, one of the founders of the Manif, founded a think tank to promote an ideology he calls “human ecology”, a warm and fuzzy term for Christian humanism. By contrast, Sens Commun (more on which below) is a more explicitly political movement allied with the center-Right UMP party.

The Manif has also had international echoes. Social conservatives around the world awoke in blessed stupor to find the French – the French! – building a large grassroots social conservative movement. Some facets of the Manif were inherently French and would probably fall flat in other countries, such as its pink scheme and its racy leader. But some aspects have borne fruit overseas, such as the effective rhetorical focus on children’s right to a mother and a father, rather than the socio-economic arguments that are common in the Anglosphere.

How did this movement not only get started, but produce so much fruit, some of it bad and some of it good?

There is a simple first explanation which is much broader than the issue of same-sex marriage or French Catholicism. The movement happened in the context of simmering frustration with the country’s direction, which has been widespread in French society for 20 years. This feeling was only exacerbated by the combination of economic recession and the perceived incompetence of François Hollande’s government.

Many who protested against same-sex marriage expressed the belief that, while they were only lukewarm about that idea, for the government to focus on such a divisive issue at a time of serious economic issues was a case of irresponsibly playing politics. Hollande was seen, probably not inaccurately, as asleep at the controls on the economy, and trying to shore up his political support by rallying his base around symbolic social issues. Where he miscalculated was that such naked politicking would create an equal and opposite reaction of angry frustration for countless French people. The movement tied in, and played into, this widespread sense of dissatisfaction that had to do with both everyday politics and longstanding socio-economic trends.

Another important explanation has to do with the simple fact that the Catholic conservative opposition never went away; it just went silent. French history is famous for its late 19th-century battles between secularists and Catholics over laïcité – the separation of Church and state. France is also famous for the May 1968 student riots which ushered in a new cultural era marked by sexual revolution.

In the biggest battles over social issues of the past century, French social conservatives lost. That much is true. But this created the false sense – both within France and outside it – that because secular liberalism won the big political and cultural battles, all of French culture signed up to the new regime. In reality, as with almost every country on the planet, France still has, as it always had, a silent conservative majority.

Everyone remembers the May 1968 student protests. Few remember the conservative counter-protest of June 1968 which was far greater in terms of numbers.(Since the conservatives had the good taste not to riot or destroy public property, they made less news.)

Few also remember that after May 1968 president Charles de Gaulle called a snap legislative election, which resulted in a conservative landslide, even though conservatives had barely held on to their majority in the election of the previous year.

When social conservatives lost the cultural and political battles, they retreated and left the field, but they did not die. They kept running their churches and their schools and having children (often at an above average rate). Those millions of marchers did not appear out of thin air: they were always there. When the right moment came, there was already a reservoir of people who were willing to march.

The Manif movement has done some impressive things, but it also has some pitfalls. The first is that it seems to be sociologically narrow, mostly made up of upper middle-class white people. To any Christian, this should be a warning sign.

The leaders of the movement aim not just to be an interest group but to promote a wholesale rethinking of French society and its values. To do that, they will have to appeal beyond people who are already lifelong Catholics with Catholic parents. And they will have to be – and look like – something other than a movement that simply wants to go back to The Way Things Were.

This upper middle-class, Catholic sheen might be a reason why relatively few Muslims participated in the movement, even though many French Muslims are socially conservative. Most French Muslims’ main concerns are economic (employment) and social (fighting discrimination). The overlap between French Muslims and the French underclass is large, whereas the Manif always tended to look like a movement of France’s overclass, who can afford to care about social issues.

The other pitfall is politicisation. One of the spin-offs of the Manif is a movement inside the main center-Right UMP party called Sens Commun (“Common Sense”). That’s a terrible name for a movement that seeks to be inspired by the Gospel – perhaps the least commonsensical proposition ever introduced to the human mind.

The UMP has tried to co-opt the Manif, blessedly without much success. But over time the more the Manif is identified with a political movement, the less authentic it will be.

In the end, the Manif must heed the warning of C S Lewis’s senior demon Screwtape, who advised a junior tempter: “Let him begin by treating the patriotism or the pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause’, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war effort or of pacifism.

“The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes and crusades matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours – and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms) the more securely ours.”

The Manif is an endlessly intriguing phenomenon, because it shows that there is the material for a Catholic revival in France. Already, contrary to myth, in the large cities of France, Catholic churches are full on Sunday. Whether this revival truly sets the country on fire will depend on what happens with the energy that the Manif has awakened.

The Manif can go down the Screwtape road, and lose itself and the chance to change France. Or it can go up the narrow, hard road of the Gospel and become a true renewal movement.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a columnist at The Week and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC. His writing has appeared in Forbes, The Atlantic, First Things, Commentary Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Federalist, Quartz and other places. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.

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