Once among the most Catholic countries in the world, sometimes called the “eldest daughter of the Church,” France has seen serious decline in churchgoing numbers in modern times. While more than 50 percent of people still identify as Catholic, only 5 percent regularly attend Mass.
Still, in France’s recent presidential election, a latent Catholic identity in many of France’s citizens proved to be a powerful political tool.
Sociologists Emmanuel Todd and Hervé Le Bras were the first to label the phenomenon in their book “Le mystère français” in which they explain that “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.’”
“Zombie Catholics” of France share certain characteristics, the sociologists noted. They typically come from regions of the country where resistance to the French Revolution was the strongest.
“Highly educated and meritocratic, they also privilege a traditional ordering of professional and domestic duties between husbands and wives; strong attachment to social, community, and family activities; and a general wariness over the role of the state in private and community affairs, including ‘free schools’ (Catholic private schools),” they wrote.
According to Marc Endeweld, a biographer of Emmanuel Macron, the new president embodies this “zombie Catholic” phenomenon. Although born into a secular family, Macron asked to be baptized at age 12. While not a regular churchgoer, Macron symbolizes “those territories of Christian tradition that benefit from social structures and economic systems capable of counterbalancing globalization, in contrast to the more Jacobin territories that have lost the protection of the state.”
In the “zombie Catholic” stronghold region of Brittany, Macron won 3 out of every 4 votes. Having never been elected to any other political office, he ran as the head of a new movement, En March!, instead of an established political party. His politics have been described as liberal and progressive, though he has said he hopes to transcend the divides of the left and right political parties. At 39, he is the youngest president to ever be elected in France.
He was not the only candidate who appealed to the latent Catholics of France during the election season. François Fillon, former prime minister of France and a practicing Catholic, shocked pundits and political commentators throughout the country when he pulled ahead in the Republican party and beat out the moderate former Prime Minister Alain Juppé (himself a self-described “agnostic Catholic”) by a wide margin.
His Catholicism was such a strong part of his political identity that a headline in the newspaper Libération proclaimed: “Help, Jesus has returned!”
President-elect Macron has said that he supports the French principle of secularism (laïcité). He has also said that “we have a duty to let everybody practice their religion with dignity,” though he believes that “when one enters the public realm, the laws of the Republic must prevail over religious law.”