The French know politics is everyone's business

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

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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.

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