PARIS — French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has worked for years to have the electorate accept her anti-immigrant National Front as a mainstream political party. This strategy, known in French as “dédiabolisation” (un-demonization), has won over growing numbers of average voters.
The country’s leading religious groups or leaders, though, have mostly resisted the temptation. None of them has endorsed Le Pen ahead of Sunday’s (May 7) presidential election runoff against centrist Emmanuel Macron, and several have openly or indirectly urged their flocks to vote against her.
Religious leaders are supposed to remain politically neutral, especially in officially secularist France, and many preachers respect this rule or cite it to avoid stirring up disputes in their congregations.
But after a venomous brawl of a televised debate on Wednesday (May 3) between Le Pen and centrist front-runner Emmanuel Macron, the heads of the Muslim, Jewish, and Protestant communities came out on Thursday in favor of Macron.
“We’re well aware that our official positions oblige us to remain politically neutral, but as responsible citizens, we call clearly to vote for Emmanuel Macron on Sunday,” they said in an unprecedented joint declaration.
“Today it’s no longer enough to say we have to block the National Front,” they said, stressing their profound attachment to France’s national ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity. “We … invite the French to turn out to vote for the victory of a generous and tolerant France, open to the world.”
Missing from the statement was the Roman Catholic Church, the traditional majority faith that nominally accounts for about two-thirds of the population, although most are not churchgoers.
Its national bishops conference issued its own statement after the first electoral round on April 23, urging Catholics to vote according to church values that included welcoming refugees and supporting European unity.
These could be read as critical of the National Front, but the hierarchy insisted it had to stay politically neutral.
Opinion polls say Macron could win up to 60 percent of the vote. Even if she loses with 40 percent, Le Pen will have made significant progress toward overcoming the pariah status that long kept the National Front out of the political mainstream.
Founded in 1972 by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a boisterous and sharp-tongued ex-paratrooper, the party operated for decades on the far-right nationalist fringe, attracting anti-Semites, opponents of Muslim immigration, and ultratraditionalist Catholics.
When Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly reached the second round of voting in 2002, mainstream French from right to left — including many religious leaders — rallied to re-elect conservative President Jacques Chirac with 82 percent of the runoff vote.
Since becoming party leader in 2011, Marine Le Pen has tried to smooth the Front’s rough edges and presented herself as a modern divorced mother defending the interests of “the people” against “the system” in Paris. This helped the National Front vote rise steadily in local and regional elections in recent years.
When conservative hopeful François Fillon showed last year how hitherto neglected Catholic voters could be mobilized, Le Pen began speaking about her Catholic upbringing and how she sometimes agreed with Pope Francis. Until then, her talk about religion was mostly against Islam.
After the Catholic hierarchy’s noncommittal stand, media commentators and lay Catholic activists rounded on the bishops conference for not openly opposing Le Pen.
Some bishops said they personally could not vote for her; others made their position clear while still not mentioning her name.
“Which party to support on May 7?” Troyes Bishop Marc Stenger asked in a tweet. “Not the one representing fear, hate, rejection, lies, exclusion and introversion. That is against the Gospel.”
Another bishop said he could not vote for a xenophobic candidate, conspicuously using the feminine form (une candidate) of the noun in French.
A few bishops in areas where National Front support is strong have used arguments from former Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to give a more conservative twist to their call for votes that reflect Catholic values.
Although no bishops have endorsed Le Pen, two prominent lay Catholics — right-wing politician Christine Boutin and Ludovine de La Rochère, spokeswoman of the anti-gay marriage movement — have backed her.
On Wednesday, as criticism of its refusal to take sides mounted, the bishops’ conference issued an interview with its head, Marseille Archbishop Georges Pontier, to justify its official neutrality.
“These reproaches are coming from all sides, from supporters of the two candidates … and people who will abstain or cast a spoiled ballot,” he said.
“What’s easier — to say to vote for this or that one, or invite people to contemplate and discern?” he asked, stressing the conference hadn’t endorsed any side in an election since 1962.
Bishop Jean-Paul Jaeger of Arras, a diocese in the northern rust belt near Belgium, put it in more practical terms in an interview with the Catholic newspaper La Croix.
“In a department (county) where more than one in three voted for the National Front, taking such a clear stand would amount to telling those people that they don’t count and they haven’t understood anything,” he said.
The Rev. Nicolas de Bremond d’Ars, a sociologist of religion, said the bishops were “crucified” because French Catholics were increasingly polarized politically.
“Macron mostly represents the urban population and Le Pen the periphery,” he said. “A Catholicism that wants to cover the whole spectrum of French people cannot choose between urban and rural. It’s impossible.”
This was less of a problem for the three faith leaders who endorsed Macron on Thursday. France’s Muslims, Jews and Protestants make up only about 12 percent of the population and are mostly in or near several large cities.
All three groups have also been targets of Le Pen’s barbs recently. Her staunch opposition to migration, headscarves, halal school meals and other Muslim issues has been a central element of her campaign.
She angered Jewish leaders last month when she denied French responsibility for the so-called Vel d’Hiv Roundup, the mass arrest of Jews in occupied Paris in 1942.
Le Pen even earned criticism from France’s small Protestant minority for an interview containing a remark — meant to be an unspoken comparison to today’s Muslims — that their 17th-century Huguenot ancestors had made religious demands that were “against the nation.”