The Catholic vote has been well known to electoral sociology since the work of Guy Michelat and Michel Simon (1977). Practicing Catholics vote far more than the rest of the electorate for the right. About 65-70% in the first round of every presidential election. From the 1980s, a second observation was added concerning practicing Catholics: their roots on the right did not benefit the National Front, for which they voted below the national averages, unlike non-practicing Catholics whose Frontist votes exceeded those -this.
Each presidential election up to now confirms these tendencies. What about the current one? It is not so much the relationship between left and right that is interesting to observe, within Catholics, as the balance of power between the rights and the variations according to the intensity of religious practice.
The first lesson of this election is that regular churchgoers, who until then voted overwhelmingly for government parties, vote nearly 60% for protest candidates. Emmanuel Macron is the one who obtains the most important vote, with 25% of the votes, while François Fillon was in the lead in 2017 with 55%. This is already a first sign of the breakdown of the relationship to politics among these Catholics. Marine Le Pen obtains a score of 21% (compared to 12% in 2017), which testifies to an alignment with the national averages and to an exit of the practitioners from their reserve towards her.
Second lesson, compared to the rest of the French, regular practitioners are overmobilized in favor of Valérie Pécresse and Éric Zemmour. It even benefits from a specifically religious dynamic.
In March the Ifop-Life already showed it clearly: 71% of those who planned to vote for Éric Zemmour recognized the importance of their religious convictions in their choice, against 42% for those who planned to vote Valérie Pécresse and 41% for Emmanuel Macron. The Ifop surveyThe cross confirms it. If only 7% of non-practitioners voted Zemmour, they are 10% among occasional practitioners and 16% among regulars. The enthusiasm is even stronger among young Catholics.
How to interpret this religious affinity with Zemmour? Undoubtedly, the Reconquest candidate! benefited from the rallying of all the opinion leaders of Catholic conservatism who had previously been dispersed in the right-wing parties: Agnès Marion, Marion Maréchal, Jean-Frédéric Poisson, Laurence Trochu, Philippe de Villiers… Éric Zemmour gave them a central place that the other parties refused them. The candidate also framed the political issues around Christianity: as the historical matrix of the nation; civilizational condition of political freedom and secularism; constituting majority mores…
Finally, the theme of “great replacement” that the candidate rehashed obsessively sent conservative Catholics back to the fear of their own decline. The 2018 European Values Study shows that, among 18-29 year olds in France, 15% declare themselves to be Catholic and 13% Muslim. In these younger generations, the crossing of the curves of devotion is imaginable in the short term and is already producing destabilizing effects. The enthusiasm for Éric Zemmour is explained by the combination of the symbolic recognition that the latter granted to Christianity at a time when some Catholics are overwhelmed by a powerful feeling of downgrading.
Still, in my opinion, it is beyond the conjuncture of the campaign, in the process of secularization that we must look for the cause of the right-wing radicalization of practitioners. In a context of statistical collapse, Catholicism is recomposed on those who remain: tendentially the most conservative. Defining themselves as the “John Paul II generation” or “Benedict XVI”, they restructure the Church on a more ritualistic, integralist and intransigent line than their elders marked by the “Breath of Vatican II”.
Secularization entails an internal desecularization of the Church. The tension between Catholics and political life therefore increases as the latter is reconfigured around a secularized system of values. The place given to euthanasia or abortion in the presidential campaign is one sign among others.
The cost of political compromises is therefore always higher for these Catholics. The bishops legitimized this year the white vote, it is a manifestation, with the Zemmour vote, of the same process of marginalization.
And maybe also a same acceleration of it? Because how to explain that the Catholic voters of Emmanuel Macron or Jean-Luc Mélenchon, much more numerous than those of Éric Zemmour, remain without face or structuring in the public or Catholic space? The moments of politicization of the Catholic identity in reaction to the evolution of society (on questions of bioethics or on migratory flows) affect the social identity of Catholicism. Because practitioners who do not recognize themselves in conservative mistrust can internalize the feeling of being in deviance compared to the rest of their co-religionists.
The more moderate currents find themselves invisible and their reform project compromised by the political and media overconstruction of the opposition that would exist between faith and the modernization of society. Even within the right, those who refuse reactionary politicization will react by making their religious identity invisible to escape clichés. Since the secularization of society and the internal desecularization of Catholicism are structural processes, moderate political and religious positions are gradually being eroded. Whatever becomes of Éric Zemmour, it is to be expected that the right-wing radicalization of Catholics will be lasting for these reasons.