Emma-Kate Symons is a Washington-based journalist and former Paris correspondent.
PARIS — Pope Francis and the Catholic hierarchy, who have been high-profile in defending refugees and cautioning against President Trump’s populism, are missing in action when it comes to the French presidential election.
On the eve of Sunday’s deciding ballot, extreme-right nationalist Marine Le Pen is still saying that she will refuse entry to or expel any asylum-seekers who make it to France and will end the rights of immigrant families to reside together in France. Her anti-Brussels platform aims to tear down the European Union and stop Muslims and Jews from wearing religious head coverings in public. Despite her radical departure from even a conservative interpretation of the Gospel, 46 percent of Catholics are saying they will vote for her.
All the pontiff could say, however, when asked about the election recently, was “I don’t know where [Emmanuel Macron] comes from” and “I know there is a candidate from the strong right.” The remarks, which Le Pen used in a campaign rally to mock her opponent, are nothing short of “astonishing,” as Le Monde pointed out in a front-page editorial. Ahead of Trump’s inauguration, Pope Francis warned against the rise of 1930s-style populist politicians who resembled Hitler. But he has had nothing to say about France, where every extra vote for Le Pen, even if she loses, will make her a stronger political force in the years to come.
Contrary to the pope’s vague statements, the National Front leader is not from the “strong” right. She is a pure product of the French extreme right, hailing from a political dynasty whose roots stretch all the way back to France’s darkest days of Nazi collaboration. Le Pen has modified the discourse of her Holocaust-denying father Jean-Marie Le Pen, but the heir to his fortune and ideology retains all of the marks of hatred of immigrants, nationalism and stigmatization of foreigners, Jews and “the other” — now Muslims — that have always characterized the party. Le Pen retains an inner core of advisers and officials who are Hitler admirers and Holocaust deniers like her father. Last month she was forced to suspend her interim party chief because he questioned the details about the gas used by Hitler to exterminate Jews.
While the pope is sitting out the race, the powerful French conference of bishops has also refrained from directly criticizing Le Pen’s platform or calling for a vote for Macron. The equivocal response of Pope Francis and the church’s upper echelons in France, who have said only that the vote requires “discernment” and have issued non-specific comments about welcoming strangers, is all the more disturbing because it stands in sharp contrast to the three other large religious groupings in France. Key Muslim, Jewish and Protestant bodies have all called for voters to block the National Front from gaining power or even gaining too many votes and explicitly urged a vote for Macron.
The Catholic Church’s sin of omission sits uneasily with its history in the 20th century and since the rise of the National Front under its founding father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 1926, Pope Pius XI condemned the French nationalist movement Action Française, a virulently anti-Semitic violent forerunner of the National Front. Since the mid-1980s, French bishops have made multiple statements deploring Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front’s “neo-pagan” foundations and “incompatibility with the Good News of Christ and Church teaching.” When Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential election in 2002, leading bishops took a firm stance against the extreme right and advised a vote for Jacques Chirac.
Leaving aside her anti-immigrant policies, Marine Le Pen is no Catholic family-values model or champion. She never attended the protests against gay marriage and is a twice-divorced mother of three who lives with her companion.
Progressive or mainstream-right French Catholics are still in the majority in France, notwithstanding the rise of ultra-conservative movements that reproach the center-left for having legalized gay marriage and falsely accuse Macron of supporting surrogacy. They are justifiably expressing shock and disappointment that Pope Francis and the French bishops have not done their moral duty. “This silence [of the church and the pope] has provoked a profound malaise among the faithful, leading several bishops and activist groups to pronounce clearly against the candidate of the National Front,” Le Monde said. Catholics determined to fight the extreme right wonder whether the bishops have kept quiet simply to avoid a public conflict with vocal fundamentalist groups that have advocated for Le Pen. Others believe that the pope has been ill-advised by his representatives in France. The humorist Karl Zéro wrote up an “imaginary telephone call” from Pope Francis castigating his bishops for having given Le Pen a free pass and left him in the untenable position of defending the indefensible — her policies against migrants.
The biggest French Catholic newspaper, La Croix, declared that it was going to assume its own responsibility in the absence of the pope or the church leadership and take a position for the first time since 2002, when the French had to choose between Jean-Marie Le Pen and Chirac. “We cannot resign ourselves to those who put up barriers around France and who introduce separations between residents of our country according to their nationality,” read its editorial. “Given the risk that this would happen with Marine Le Pen, abstention is not an option.”
If only the pope and his bishops had the same sense of principle and moral courage.