For Emmanuel Macron, the main motivation of the Bernardins speech was to renew the dialogue with the Catholics, after the mandate of François Hollande and the tensions around “marriage for all”. Tensions of unprecedented intensity in the history of relations between French presidents and Catholics. “The mandate of François Hollande marked a rupture”, even considers the historian Jean-Luc Pouthier, recalling that he was also “The first president to proclaim himself an atheist”.
Before him, all the presidents of the Ve Republic displayed at least a cultural Catholicism. Those on the right showed it a little more, for example going regularly to Sunday mass. “Georges Pompidou went there when he spent the weekend in his second home in Orvilliers (Yvelines), Jacques Chirac during his holidays at Fort de Brégançon (in Bormes-les-Mimosas, in the Var, Editor’s note) “, quotes Jean-Luc Pouthier. As for Nicolas Sarkozy, we remember his speech at the Lateran, praising the “Christian roots”. Logical, underlines the historian, when we know that “One of the only constants of electoral sociology is that practicing Catholics vote on the right”.
If they did not all show up to mass when they were alive, “All had Catholic funerals”, recalls Jean-Luc Pouthier. “Mitterrand even managed to have two”, Notre-Dame de Paris and Jarnac (Charente). This permanence cannot be explained only by the desire to seduce Catholics. First, the latter are less and less numerous since the time of General de Gaulle. Then they don’t vote in one block.
For the sociologist of religions Philippe Portier, the target audience for these presidential gestures is actually much larger. “There is still in society an attachment to the Catholic religion, which the presidents do not want to neglect to flatter”, he underlines, also recalling the importance of the role of Catholics in social action. “The Church appears to be the auxiliary of a State which no longer has the means to ensure this mission on its own. “ Even François Hollande, at the end of his mandate, had recognized it, after the establishment of a humanitarian corridor to bring Syrian and Iraqi refugees to France, in collaboration with Christian organizations.
The secularization of society therefore does not prevent presidents from addressing Catholics. On the contrary, analyzes Philippe Portier, “Paradoxically, religious institutions are called upon to contribute their resources of meaning to collective deliberation. When Emmanuel Macron, at the Bernardins, asks the Church to “donate its wisdom” to the Republic, we find the spirit of François Mitterrand when he installed the National Ethics Council in 1983 ”.
This recent and rapid development carries the risk of misunderstanding, admits the historian. “There is a contradiction between presidents who, because they embody the plurality of French society, receive the word of the Church on a subsidiary basis, and a Church which thinks that being solicited will allow it to influence the public action in the sense of its values. “