France is a muddled nation, n’est-ce pas? And at the root of the muddle is, guess what, religion. Maybe the muddle is a godsend. For if the right were more united on religion, Marine Le Pen would surely have won. The Front National is the strongest far-right party in Western Europe, supported by about a third of the French people. But it is also the most muddled. It has a nostalgic idea of the nation as a traditional organic culture. But it seems utterly ignorant of the gaping problem with such a project. Traditional French culture is split between Catholicism and secularism.
Marine Le Pen emphasised secularism, in order to project a clear line against Islam. But this was probably a mistake. For the deepest force in French conservatism is actually the Catholic right, which normally votes for Les Républicains, whose candidate François Fillon failed to make it to the last round. If she had managed to sound more Catholic than secularist, she would surely have beaten the shiny newcomer.
One of Macron’s biggest tasks is to keep Catholics onside. Otherwise Le Pen will learn from her mistake and develop a more religious-sounding nationalism that may be unstoppable. Can he do it? Maybe. Though raised in a secular family, he chose to be baptised at the age of 12 before entering a Jesuit school. He has hardly been a devout Catholic, but it makes a big difference that religion is a part of his image. He can gently play it up. Maybe that 12-year-old’s decision will prove to be the making of a genuinely re-unifying president.
Theo Hobson is the author of God Created Humanism: the Christian Basis of Secular Values