The French know politics is everyone's business

I was eavesdropping on an event that reflected a very different culture from our own

Share
Related Topics

I unexpectedly found myself at a three-day meeting of the Catholic laity in France last week. The first thing that struck me was the sheer number attending. Some 4,000 people had come to Lille to study social questions. For 100 years, these annual events, the "Semaines Sociales de France", have been held in different cities, a sort of itinerant university as the participants like to think.

I am unsure if there is a British equivalent, not on this scale. Twice a year the National Synod of the Church of England gathers perhaps 1,000 people, alternating between London and York. And only part of the proceedings are given over to social questions. The annual conferences of the political parties do not perform the same function at all. You could hardly say that attending successive Labour Party conferences at Brighton, Blackpool or wherever had anything of a university experience about it.

Another surprise was the absence of the clergy. This was Catholic lay people discussing social policy on their own. At Church of England synods, bishops and clergy are present in force. I was told that there were 12 bishops at Lille; if so they were silent observers, inconspicuous in dress, sitting in the body of the hall. The only person present who looked like a bishop was Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, who spoke on interfaith relationships. People came up to him afterwards to have a close look at his pectoral cross. He and I and two nuns were the only Brits present that I could see. I was eavesdropping on an event that reflected a very different culture from our own.

The sharp cut-off between church and state in France largely explains why the Catholic laity study social questions on their own. The same thought-process lies behind the recent decision to ban the display of religious signs in schools, in particular the headscarves worn by Muslim girls. While the Reformation of the 16th century gave England a national church, the Church of England, whose bishops are still today formally appointed by the Crown, the French Revolution 250 years later created the secular state. This was reinforced in 1905 by a complete break between the spiritual and the political spheres of French life. At the time, the French Republic recognised only the state and individuals. Founded in 1904, the Semaines Sociales essentially said that we ordinary Catholics want to think about a third sphere, civil society itself.

In this respect, France is even different from its next-door neighbours. For, unlike Belgium, Germany and Italy, it has never favoured the development of confessional political parties such as the familiar Christian Democrats. In the 1880s, the Pope forbade a Catholic party being founded in France. He didn't want the longings of the Catholic bishops for a return to the ancien régime to be revealed. Instead, the hierarchy gave its support to the parties of the far right and ended up by favouring the Vichy regime during the Second World War with all its anti-democratic and totalitarian tendencies. This is why, I think, the bishops instinctively kept their heads down in Lille.

Nor have there ever been confessional political parties in Britain. With a national church, such a development was never contemplated except that 100 years ago you could have justly said, in the familiar phrase, that the Church of England was the Conservative Party at prayer. At the same time, the old Liberal Party displayed its Nonconformist sympathies with its temperance policies and so on, and the newly born Labour Party had Methodism as one of its parents. These influences now have virtually disappeared.

A further aspect of Lille that I found remarkable was its "soft sell". The 4,000 participants divided themselves into six forums to discuss a variety of social questions, led by experts giving papers. And then what? No angry resolutions, no deputations to government ministers, no demonstrations. The idea is that the Catholic laity simply goes back into society and works by means of quiet persuasion. I see a difference here. In Britain by and large, Christians witness to their faith by the manner in which they lead their lives. French Catholics have a more activist view as far as the laity is concerned. Their bishops recently stated that: "Politics is everyone's business. It is not enough to rely on the political class, business leaders, police officers, magistrates and power brokers ... otherwise good citizenship would not exist in the population as a whole."

To coincide with Lille, a French magazine commissioned a poll into attitudes to the Church. Is it close to the poor? Sixty-two per cent said it was. Is it close to the rich? Yes, said 59 per cent. Does it raise important questions? It does, according to 48 per cent. And are its answers interesting? They are, in the opinion of 40 per cent. Would you say that the Church had too much influence in French society? Only 15 per cent answered yes. Another 32 per cent thought it should have a greater say while 52 per cent were content with its present standing.

I should very much like to know what results the Church of England and the other major faiths in British society would obtain from a similar poll. I fear, but perhaps I am wrong, that the scores would be less good.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker