Keeping the Huguenot tradition alive

Every year, French Protestants gather to celebrate their faith and draw strength from their unity, reports Mary Dejevsky in St Jean du Gard Standfirst Mary Dejevsky in Saint Jean du Gard
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The Independent Online
They came from all over France, from Belgium, from Germany and from Switzerland, to profess their faith under the chestnut trees of the high Cevennes, and you could hear the singing, strong and deliberate, from a mile away.

Their cars and buses were parked in neat lines in adjacent fields; everything was clearly signposted and marshalled. They carried their garden chairs and their picnic baskets with them, and settled in perfect order around a shady dell to await the start of the service.

This was the annual gathering of one of France's smaller, but fastest- growing religious minorities: the Protestants. Every year, on the first Sunday in September, these spiritual, and often physical, descendants of the Huguenots meet at the Mas Soubeyran near the town of St Jean du Gard in central southern France, for a day of contemplation, psalm-singing and Bible-reading that re-charges their batteries for the year ahead.

"I think we need this assembly," said a matronly woman as she set out her family's picnic. "I think we feel isolated for the rest of the year, and this helps us. We are a small minority, less than a million of us; fewer than the Jews, fewer than the Muslims, and this gives us confidence."

She and her family have been coming to Mas Soubeyran for years; her son- in-law was there for the first time. "I was touched," he said, "to see so many people from so many different places, all come to this small place." They themselves had come from Pau in the Pyrenees and Toulouse in south- western France. But the registration numbers in the car parks bore witness to many longer journeys than theirs.

France's Protestants have long memories. In daily life, they wear them for the most part lightly, but they are still there. In his sermon, the head of the Protestant Federation of France, Jacques Stewart, warned of the dangers of harbouring vengeful thoughts. But, in some of his few remarks addressed to the current political situation, he condemned the exclusion of particular groups from French society - the poor, the unemployed and immigrants, and called for tolerance.

In a passage which drew a parallel between France's current campaign against illegal immigrants and the fate of the Huguenots in the 17th century, he appealed: "Consider how you can limit or relieve suffering," and "remember what fear of other people can lead to."

Each year, more than 10,000 people come to Mas Soubeyran for the annual assembly. It marks the anniversary of the revocation of Henry IV's Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685, which ended almost a century of religious tolerance in France, condemned tens of thousands to imprisonment, torture and death, and drove hundreds of thousands into emigration.

The Cevennes, and especially the area north of Nimes, was and remains a prime Protestant stronghold, along with the Isere region around Grenoble. It was to these regions, far from the reach of Paris, and in difficult terrain, that many of the Huguenots fled. And it was here, in what is still termed the "wilderness" of the Cevennes that they held their banned services.

Today, the Protestant villages are easily identified. The signs announcing one's arrival do not read "Messe" or "Eglise", but "Culte" and "Temple" - the Protestant equivalents. And there is something different about the villages themselves: a spare sense of order and propriety, a slight severity, which sets them apart from Catholic southern France.

Something similar could be said of yesterday's gathering at Mas Soubeyran. Seen together against the backdrop of a predominantly Catholic and at least partly Mediterranean country, the Protestants seem serious and introspective, weighed down by responsibility, and just a little dour.

The morning service began with the complete silence of 10,000 people and only the rustle of the wind in the trees. What was striking was the immediate emphasis on sin and personal repentance in a faith where the release of the confessional is not an option. The invocation to "Go in peace and sin no more" was taken as a grave and personal challenge.

Seen as a group, France's Protestants also look different: lighter haired, generally more solid and more north European than the rest of the French population. And their hymns are in the heavier Germanic style of "Now thank we all our God", not the lighter, Latin style sung by French Catholics. Asked whether, as Protestants, they felt different from Catholics, everyone I asked gave a decisive yes. "We're quite different, in our attitudes and our behaviour," an elderly woman said. "At least, we hope we are."

That unstated sense of superiority in personal and ethical values may help to explain why many French Catholics admit to finding Protestants "difficult". Increasingly, though, Protestants are also given grudging admiration, being widely regarded as having particularly high standards of honesty and integrity. The fact that the Socialist leader, Lionel Jospin, was known to be a Protestant was regarded as an electoral plus during last year's presidential campaign, although it was not something he flaunted.

The sense of integrity is also given as one of the reasons for the appeal of Protestantism in France today. As Catholicism languishes and churches stand empty for lack of congregations and and an even greater lack of priests, the Protestant church has been gaining several thousand members a year.