A reader writes:
My wife and I are regular readers of your blog, French living in France, orthodox Catholics, and we thought you might be interested in a “grassroots” perspective on Putin enthusiasts in France, among which we count ourselves. We are not National Front (FN) supporters. Christian values or the support thereof probably have little influence on people’s view of the Russian president. The very reasons Putin’s leadership style is despicable to Americans are at worst neutral to many Frenchmen — and, in fact, as we face many similar problems, his way of dealing with them seems enviable to us ! Let me elaborate.
Why Putin’s support of Christianity holds little weight in France
For us, the fact that Putin holds himself as a defensor of traditional values and the Christian faith is a positive factor, with the caveat that many gestures — eg the financing of the traditional Christmas tree in front of Notre Dame — are nakedly political and it is difficult to have any illusion as to the depth of his personal religiosity. It is in fact more and more difficult in Europe to live as Christians, in large part because of EU politics, as is shown by the harsh reactions to the Hungarian decision to inscribe the criminal nature of abortion in their constitution. However, in France, this type of religion and morality-based reasoning is not very common.
It’s important to note that *in France* religion or religious values, in our experience, usually have almost nothing to do with why people may find Putin likeable or the “extreme-right” — better called the national right — appealing. Catholic values have almost completely disappeared. As you note in another post, less than 5% of the population attend mass with any regularity, most of whom are elderly. Outside of some very particular areas (some neighborhoods in Paris, Versailles …), you would be hard-pressed to meet a practicing Catholic outside of church-related events ! In truth, though Catholicism is very linked with French culture, and some people still like to get married in Church, have their children baptized, get palms blessed on Palm Sunday, etc., the Catholic Church and Catholic morals have very little influence on the lives of the vast, vast majority of our countrymen. Some anecdotal examples of the lack of exposure to Catholic thought of French youth:
– inability to understand classic works of literature (eg La Princesse de Clèves) for some university students because of lack of familiarity with, among others, the concept of sin
— lack of knowledge of major Christian feasts such as Palm Sunday (despite twelve years of Catholic schools)
The FN is the French party with the most or second-most support, consistently scoring around 30 % of the popular vote, even among the young; it is safe to say that it is probably not linked to religious thinking. Homosexualism has been extremely destructive to life in the American public square, as you document on your blog, but here, it has changed very little.
How we perceive Putin’s leadership style
It’s also important to note that the suppression of free speech, the free press, etc. in Putin’s Russia is far less schocking to the French than to Americans. In general, we don’t value democracy in the same sense Americans do. American-style civic freedoms are not a given in other democracies. Obviously it’s worse in Russia, however, in France:
— Freedom of speech is substantially abridged: (race-based or nationality-based) hate speech as such is forbidden by law; “lois memorielles” penalize, for example, Holocaust denial or Armenian genocide denial; recently, a bill making pro-life websites criminal was passed by the Assemblée Nationale and is awaiting a Senate vote.
— The press is deeply enmeshed with the political powers that be: the scandalous or criminal behavior of politicians is often an “open secret” among those in the know, but never appearing in the pages of newspapers to discredit them. Examples are too numerous to list ; thanks to the American courts and the Sofitel maids, old accusations against former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn came to light. Former president François Mitterand’s double life was revealed only after his death. Former Eureopean deputy Cohn-Bendit and the former minister Frédéric Mitterand live in peace despite past indiscretions too disgusting to contemplate, up to and including avowed child abuse.
— Our intelligence services have pretty much unlimited abilities to spy on people (e.g. mass breaking into facebook accounts of Manif pour Tous participants)
I could go on, but these examples are already pretty telling. Not saying this is good or bad; these invasive intelligence collection methods are possibly the only thing preventing some pretty terrible terrorist attacks right now.
I will add that, as the NYT points out, the FN recently took out a 9m euro loan from a Russian bank — but that is because no EU or swiss bank agreed to lend to them, for reasons that are unclear… Were I a banker, it’s not the last party on which I would have placed my bet. But many of the banks contacted did not even reply to their requests.
Most importantly, French culture has a very high emphasis on having a strong leader — “l’homme providentiel” who leads the country to greatness. The French monarchy was one of the strongest in the world (in the sense that the monarch’s authority was truly absolute and not dependant on the approval of powerful families); the heroes of French history include tyrants such as Napoleon, who re-instated slavery but gave France glory. Charles de Gaulle, who basically tailored the Fifth Republic to his personality but gave France some international clout back after WWII and Indochina is still revered, both on the French right and left ! Our constitution gives the President great power — that to dissolve the Assemblée Nationale (House of Representatives) and call a new election, that to take “full powers” “in case of a grave and immediate threat” for thirty days, and then indefinitely unless a council of senators or representatives decides the conditions no longer applies (article 16), and more. President Hollande, in a recent book, admitted that the President could call for targeted executions (again, an open secret)—almost no one criticized him for ordering such executions, only for openly admitting it. Having a strong, tough, very powerful leader, in the French psyche, is a good thing. This is part of Putin’s appeal.
The way he deals with our problems
Russia and France have similar problems. Putin deals with them in a more efficient and often more agreeable way than our leaders.
As concerns internal affairs : Putin shows his authoritarian bent (again, not particularly shocking for us — see above). First example : the Femen group, who are a nuisance. In France, they invaded Notre Dame, damaged the new bells, and faced no consequences. On the contrary, it was the policemen who arrested them who were punished ! The face of one of the Femen leaders is in fact immortalized on our postal stamps… In Russia, they are behind bars. Second example : Greenpeace, a nuisance as well. In France, they found it amusing to “break in” to nuclear power plants roughly yearly and, until 2015, no one was allowed to do anything about it. In Russia, they were dealt with more energetically when trying to enter an oil platform.
As concerns Islam : it is a huge problem in France, highlighted by the recent terrorist attacks. France has the second largest muslim population (after Russia) in Europe, (5 to 10 per cent), and the many problems that go along with it. In some neighborhoods, street prayers, blocking large streets, take place every Fridays. The police *cannot enter* some areas. Jews are leaving in unprecendented numbers because of muslim antisemitism. We now have hundreds of homegrown terrorists who go fight for ISIS and come back, mostly with impunity. After an attack, our intellectual class’s biggest fear is often the oh so frightening specter of “islamophobia”. It’s a problem in schools, it’s a problem as concerns the treatment of women, it’s a problem in hospitals, it’s a problem in swimming pools, it’s a problem just about everywhere. Thus far, the most our politicians have done is say it’s a serious question. Russia, with the largest european muslim population (15 per cent), doesn’t have as many problems. Thousands of Russian nationals have gone to Syria to fight for ISIS, but there has, so far, not been a single ISIS-related terrorist attack on Russian ground!
As concerns national sovereignty : Putin has made Russia relevant again. He has acted in Syria in what seems to many in Europe the only sane manner, against US opinion. He supported Serbia as concerns the independance of Kosovo, against US and EU decisions. He again defied the US and EU in the Ukraine. We can only wish that France could be as free from the claims of “international opinion” ! Even if it would be unfair to say that we blindly follow NATO or EU dictates, often, it seems that France is subordinate to extranational interests — e.g. we are forced to take in migrants (both from the Middle East and from poorer EU countries), though we can’t afford it, culturally or economically.
I hope these few remarks will be helpful in understanding the relative popularity of Putin in France. He seems like a strong man able to make strong decisions as concerns the problems his country faces. I can only hope Russia will become, for France, a more precious ally than Saudi Arabia, Qatar or China.
Merry Christmas to you and yours.