For a secular country, France sure does have a lot of Christian symbolism. The National Front's youngest leader, 26-year-old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, thinks it's as it should be. She says France is a Catholic nation, where Muslim
PARIS — Whether spiritual or material, mercantile or merry, Christmas marks an important part of the calendar in the West. You know the season is gearing up in Paris when shops roll out the pink marshmallow Jesuses in the mangers. Not among the better-known French culinary traditions, these little savory saviors appear sometime around mid-November — even in the city's most exclusive department store, Le Bon Marché, where the hallowed mouthfuls are sold for a heavenly premium.
It always comes as a surprise to see such blatantly religious symbols for sale in a country that strictly forbids religious symbols in all of its institutions. But it does highlight a conundrum faced in a country where laïcité, French's rigid version of secularism, is ingrained as a cornerstone of public life.
While France's first-ever "day of laïcité" was celebrated at state-run schools on Dec. 9, my children were there busy learning songs about about Noël in rooms decorated for Christmas. Of course, it's very charming to hear little voices singing "Petit Papa Noël," but there's nothing secular about it. The same goes for the manger scenes that decorate various mayoral offices around France.
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Decked out for Christmas at Galeries Lafayette in Paris — Photo: Whale05
No candidate embodies the dichotomy of France's largely Catholic heritage and its laïc constitution more fully than Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. Just 26 years old, she is the youngest of the Le Pen dynasty to take up the mantle in the family-run National Front founded by her grandfather, Jean-Marie, in 1972.
"France is a land which has for a longtime been culturally and spiritually Christian," she said during a recent interview, carving out a much more religious stance than her aunt Marine Le Pen, the National Front's current leader.
The younger Le Pen's Catholicism becomes a shield against France's growing Muslim population. Islam, she said, "cannot have the same rank as the Catholic religion... (and) "laïcité is a useful tool against the propagation â€¦ of certain Muslims."
But out of the other side of her mouth, she cautions, "One can not fall into laïcité â€¦ in which we would reject religion in every political sphere." It seems to be a case of having her cake and eating it too. Or, in this case, a mini mallow Jesus in a manger.
Of course, it would be the height of absurdity to imagine rooting out Christian influences from French history. Other governments have tried that kind of historical and cultural demolition, which proved among other things to be very bad for tourism.
If France has been overwhelmingly Christian since before Charlemagne, current estimates place their numbers at 65%, most of that Roman Catholic. These statistics are imperfect because it is against French law to ask a person's religious affiliation in any official context.
Similarly, an estimation of the Muslim population rests on somewhat shaky ground. But a 2011 PEW study found that 7.5% of the population is Muslim, projecting those numbers to grow to over 10% by 2030.
Meanwhile, surprise victories by the National Front are becoming less surprising. Its strong turnout in December's election, when it garnered more votes nationwide than it ever has, is being characterized in France as the "Shock FN," even if the groundswell has been building for some time. In the 2002 presidential elections, the left and right were forced to pool their votes against Jean-Marie Le Pen, astounded that he'd finished ahead of Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin in the first round. Back then, this afforded Jacques Chirac his runaway victory in the second round of voting, and led many to conclude that FN would always be limited to its standing as a protest party.
But Jean-Marie's daughter, Marine Le Pen, has ousted her father and taken his place as head of the party. There has been rancor between the two as she has tried to distance herself from his anti-Semitic image and prepare for a real attempt at taking power. This is, after all, a man who once said, "If you take a book of a thousand pages on the Second World War, in which 50 million people died, the concentration camps occupy two pages and the gas chambers 10 or 15 lines, and that's what one calls a detail."
Her father's vile battle cry has now been replaced by his daughter's anti-immigrant drum beat. The targets of her message are France's many Muslim immigrants, largely from former French Maghrebian colonies.
The tension between the National Front and the Muslim population is palpable. Marine Le Pen has railed against halal menus in French schools and compared mosque-less Muslims forced to pray on the streets to Nazi occupation.
But it is her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who is raising the stakes even further. By explicitly using Christianity to challenge the standing of Islam, she is not only a threat to France's millions of Muslim citizens but to a century of French laïcité.
*Chambers is a freelance writer in Paris.