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Where Macron missed the point on secularism

Where Macron missed the point on secularism

Hannah Rich on how Macron’s call for reconciliation between the Church and the State missed the point.

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The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has caused controversy across the channel this week with the suggestion that the relationship between the church and the state in France should be repaired. In claiming the relationship should be mended, President Macron has been accused of undermining the secularism which has long been central to French society and culture – described by an opposition politician as the jewel‘ in the country’s crown. The principle of laïcité, the official separation of church and state,has been enshrined in French law since 1905 and the accompanying secular values are held dear by a large proportion of the French population. Viewed through the lens of laïcité, then, there is nothing damaged or in need of mending about the relationship between church and state, but rather a tie which was cut with good reason and should remain that way. It was therefore inevitable that raising the idea of reconciliation between church and state – even in an address to the Catholic bishops – would be somewhat controversial.

It might be that Macron is reacting against Marine Le Pen’s right–wing defence of strict laïcité at the last election; not abandoning secularism altogether, but trying to pave the way for a more positive, constructive form of laïcité in which the church might counsel the state rather than claiming any form of definitive political authority. “It is a Church from which I do not expect lessons, but rather the wisdom of humility”, he told the French bishops during his address this week, in which he also acknowledged the Catholic commitment to the common good and the contribution this has made to France as a nation. His plea to the church was for wisdom, rather than political solutions. Macron also claimed that ‘a French president who takes no interest in the Church and its Catholics would be failing in his duty’.

Contrast this with Macron’s reaction to the death of policeman Arnaud Beltrame last month. Beltrame was killed after offering to take the place of a woman held hostage by a terrorist claiming allegiance to ISIS. In the aftermath of his death, religious commentators both here and in France were quick to highlight the role that Beltrame’s Christian faith had in his actions, with many quoting Jesus’ words in John 15:13: ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ Some drew parallels with the poignant proximity to Easter and the commemoration of Jesus laying down his own life.

President Macron, however, was quicker to spin it into a story of patriotic heroism rather than faith–inspired sacrifice. Paying tribute to the murdered police officer, the president hailed the distinctly French “spirit of resistance” which he typified. The personal faith which lay behind Beltrame’s act of sacrifice was subsumed into a narrative celebrating him as the epitome of French values. It seemed as if the whole thing was suddenly about national pride rather than personal faith; not John 15:13, then, but ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ was the abiding theme of Macron’s eulogising.

But there is nothing all that sweet or honourable about erasing personal faith from public life in this way, even if it might be the ‘secular’ thing to do. Laïcité might demand that politics and religion remain separate in every way but there are times when it feels unnatural and even unfair to do so. Interpreted differently, the tragic death of Arnaud Beltrame could have been a prime opportunity to highlight the result of Christian faith as it occurs in public life; a real–life example of the practical implications of the Catholic conception of the common good. A president serious about his ‘duty’ to the Church and its Catholics might surely have begun there.

Perhaps when it comes to laïcité, President Macron might need to realise that he cannot have his gateau and eat it.


 Image from wikimedia available in the public domain.

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘A Torn Safety Net’ (2022).

Watch, listen to or read more from Hannah Rich

Posted 12 April 2018

Patriotism, Politics, Secularism


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