The Saint John the Baptist church is one of Libourne’s most recognisable landmarks. The imposing neo-gothic structure in the heart of the old town has the capacity to seat up to 1,000 parishioners. It’s nevertheless rare – even now during the Lenten season – for the place of worship to be full on a Sunday morning. Up to 60 percent of French people described themselves as Catholics in 2010, according to a Pew Research Center survey. However, as few as 2 percent say they attend Mass on a weekly basis.
François and Anne-Lise are part of that minority. A few blocks from the church, the 50-something couple run a computer company on the second-floor of their affluent home. They have four employees who all describe themselves as practising Catholics, and François is quick to declare their common religious affiliation is “more of a coincidence than company policy".
The couple share lunch with one of their employees, Gaspard, three weeks before the first round of the presidential elections on April 23. As usual, they say grace before eating, and today, agree to talk politics during their meal. Although François professes that “Christ is my life” he says that religion is rarely “at the forefront of my professional and personal relations". He says doing so would offend many of the clients and other people he deals with on a daily basis.
"It should be the same with the presidential candidates,” Gaspard says between bites. "Candidates shouldn’t weigh in on pro-life issues. They should concentrate on fixing the country’s economy. Politicians are wrong for trying to court Catholic voters by weighing in on surrogacy, euthanasia or freedom of conscience.”
Gaspard, who is a 35-year-old father of two, will base his vote entirely on the jobs issue. For him, François Fillon – the presidential nominee for the conservative Les Républicains party – is the candidate with the most realistic economic programme. “Companies need to be able to hire workers. But as soon as a French company starts to grow it is strangled by business taxes,” he says.
His boss Anne-Lise agrees. Her company faces peaks and lulls in activity several times each year, and she would like to be able to hire and fire staff more easily. She thinks Fillon will help businesses like hers by making the labour market more flexible and by cutting corporate taxes.
One more scandal
François, Anne-Lise and Gaspard’s political preference is representative of long-established voting patterns among Catholics in France. According to an opinion study by French polling firm Ifop published in January, half of all practising Catholics say they will vote for Fillon, who won his party’s primary in October by flaunting his Catholic faith and pro-market economic platform.
That was before a series of damning allegations against Fillon starting in January, notably that he paid his wife as a parliamentary assistant for work she reportedly never carried out and that he accepted luxury business suits as political gifts from a controversial French lawyer. Investigators are also looking into contracts they suspect were forged in the wake of Fillon’s “fake jobs” scandal.
Fillon’s suspected misuse of public funds nevertheless appear to weigh little on François, Anne-Lise and Gaspard’s conscience.
Gaspard believes Fillon is still the “best of the worst”, acknowledging he has lowered his expectations when it comes to politicians. “We’ve known for a long time that they are far from perfect, so what’s one more scandal?” he asks. “Of all the candidates he is the best qualified to face the diplomatic challenges coming from Russia and the United States.”
Falling for the far right
A few kilometres east of the church, Alexandre, 39, and Suzanne, 40, host two fellow Catholic couples from Libourne at their home. An image of Jesus decorates each room of their house, and the refrigerator proudly features a magnet of Pope John Paul II. The couple and their guests consider themselves devout Catholics, but unlike the computer entrepreneurs, they are not indifferent to Fillon’s legal woes.
Damien, 44, and wife Isabelle, who at 31 is pregnant with their sixth child, insist Fillon “has lost all credibility since he was placed under formal investigation”. As a primary candidate last summer – and at that time seeking to undermine scandal-plagued rival Nicolas Sarkozy – Fillon declared he would drop his presidential bid if he was ever placed under formal investigation. But when he was indicted last month, Fillon rejected calls to step aside, insisting he would be proven innocent by the courts.
Marin, 34, and Pauline, 29, had once considered voting for Fillon, until it was revealed in March he had accepted €48,000 worth of tailor-made suits. They also fault Fillon for not joining huge protests against gay marriage in 2013 and not speaking out forcefully enough against abortion. During mayoral elections in 2014 and European elections in 2015, Marin and Pauline cast ballots for candidates of France’s far-right National Front (FN) party.
The FN’s presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, has also been accused of misusing public funds as a member of the European Parliament and is under investigation. But these Catholic couples consider themselves to be in tune with her Eurosceptic discourse. The issue of immigrants and borders arouses particular interest.
Last year their parish undertook efforts to host a refugee family from war-ravaged Iraq. They renovated an old clergy house and launched the administrative procedures with French and Iraqi authorities to bring the family from Jordan to France. “The asylum process has been stuck in administrative quagmire for 10 months, and meanwhile others are entering the country illegally,” Marin fumes. He deplores the “gap between politicians’ sympathetic speeches and the administrative reality that slows everything down".
‘Stop the influx’
Damien also feels frustrated when it comes to immigration. “Europe’s doors have been flung wide open, and we’re not even sure who is coming through them,” he claims. He thinks Iraqi and Syrian refugees should receive preferential treatment, but that does not appear to be the case. Syrians, Russians and Sri Lankans were at the top of the list, according to Eurostat figures for 2014.
His wife Isabelle believes Le Pen is the only candidate who is serious about “controlling the borders”. The far-right candidate has pledged to limit the number of legal immigrants entering France to 10,000 a year and hold a British-like referendum on remaining in the EU. “We have to stop the influx of migrants so we can figure out how many we can take in and so we can take better care of those who are already here,” she insists.
Damien and Isabelle disagree that Catholic views are changing. For them, it’s the political landscape that is shifting, compelling voters like them to change their habits. “Today’s far right corresponds to the mainstream right that was around 25 years ago,” Damien suggests.
Tough on Europe
According to Jean-Luc Pouthier, a historian and religion researcher, a shift to the far right among French Catholics is a reality. “For many years practising Catholics rarely voted for the far right. Around 25 percent of them cast ballots for the far right today,” he notes. For many Catholics however, voting for Le Pen remains inconceivable.
Alexander, the evening’s host, is one of them. "I grew up resisting the FN," he maintains. While he defends a multicultural vision of France, he is also attracted by the idea of leaving the European Union. He believes European red tape makes real social reform in France impossible, and says he will back the candidate who has presented the best arguments for exiting the EU: François Asselineau.
Asselineau, who is widely considered a fringe candidate in the election, is a former high-ranking official who quit France’s mainstream conservative camp in 2001.
“He knows the government institutions, he is very sharp on foreign policy, and understands that France has stronger historical ties to North Africa than places like Lithuania and Romania,” Alexander says. “I like him because he takes the time to explain things, and I think he can bring consensus among left- and right-wing voters.” His guest Marin admits he is also considering casting a ballot for Asselineau, and regrets he is not taken more seriously by the media.
Back in front of Saint John the Baptist church in old Libourne, a nun shuffles towards its austere portal. At 75, Sister Nicole is one of the few remaining nuns in the diocese, and has no qualms about discussing politics. “I have never seen such a chaotic presidential campaign,” she exclaims. “I think the media spend too much time on François Fillon. Other people are much more interesting, and they’re not speaking enough about the poor.”
Sister Nicole, who is also a retired teacher, says she will cast her vote for hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. She likes the candidate’s tough stance on Europe, but also his idea to call for a new constituent assembly to draft a new French constitution and give birth to a “Sixth Republic”. Without a hint of optimism she adds: “Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will at least bring us a humanist.”