Having decisively defeated several rivals in his party’s primary this past weekend, François Fillon will carry the standard for Les Républicains in France’s presidential election next spring. Competitors and commentators — indeed, many voters — were surprised by this outcome. Surprised because Fillon had long trailed in the polls; surprised because Fillon, a former prime minister, was long dismissed as the “eternal No. 2”; surprised because Fillon has promised, if elected, to starve the beast that the French fondly call l’état providence — the welfare state — a move that in France has not typically been a winning campaign strategy. But surprised, too, because, as the rest of the country is now discovering, Fillon is Catholic. Very Catholic. So Catholic, at least to the secular left, that a headline in the newspaper Libération screamed: “Help, Jesus has returned!”
Yeah, Robespierre, and boy, is he mad. Turns out that even though France is very, very secular, there are a lot of people who don’t practice the Catholic faith who nevertheless are voting for a candidate who does. They come from the parts of France that historically stayed more faithful to the Church — “places where the church has vanished but its practices and values persist.” More:
These men and women are, in the controversial term coined three years ago by the sociologists Emmanuel Todd and Hervé Le Bras, les zombies catholiques of France. In their book Le mystère français, Todd and Le Bras tried to explain why, in a country where barely five citizens in 100 attend church, the weight of Catholicism is still evident. From the millions of parents who took to the streets in the mid-1980s to protest the Socialist government’s effort to merge private (and overwhelmingly Catholic) schools with public schools to the millions who, 30 years later, took to the same streets to protest the new (but hardly different) Socialist government’s effort to legalize gay marriage, these armies of French “zombies” would have overwhelmed the likes of Brad Pitt, let alone government ministers.
But this is less World War Z than the newest chapter in the guerres franco-françaises — France’s long series of civil wars fought over the legacy of the French Revolution, which pit a secularist left against a traditionalist right. Todd and Le Bras marvel over the persistence of Catholic habits and values in regions where Catholicism has more or less vanished as an institution. “The most astonishing paradox,” they note, “is the rise of social movements shaped by a religion that has disappeared as a metaphysical belief.” Unable to resist the French weakness for paradox, Todd and Le Bras conclude: “Catholicism seems to have attained a kind of life after death. But since it is a question of a this-worldly life, we will define it as ‘zombie Catholicism.’”
I dunno, maybe the old girl, the eldest daughter of the Church, still has some fight left in her. May it be so!