Modern Political Rule

By the dawn of the 20th  century, France had seen a number of political and labor revolts and regime changes, the expansion of colonialism, and various wars with other European powers. Two prominent political tendencies had pitted monarchists—who hoped for the return of absolute monarchy—against Republicans, who supported constitutionalism.  

The Catholic Church was mostly aligned with the monarchists and the upper classes, while Republicans received strong support from Protestants, Jews, and middle- and working-class citizens.[1] 

One troubling trend that emerged from changes to French society was sweeping anti-Semitism, both in the broader public and among the Catholic clergy. Anti-Semitism became very public in 1894, when a French Jewish military officer named Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of sharing military secrets with Germany. The trial split French society in two camps; anticlerical Republican “Dreyfusards” and mostly Catholic, pro-military “anti-Dreyfusards.” The “Dreyfus Affair” resulted in the strengthening of Republican nationalists and a backlash against French Catholicism, the consolidation of socialism in France, and the rising intensity of French anti-Semitism. 

Ongoing tensions with Germany exploded in World War I. Germany’s humiliating defeat led to the return to France of large territories that had been taken by Germany in prior wars, to the French administration of previously German colonies, and to the French assumption of control over former Ottoman territories in Syria and Lebanon. With the 1939 German invasion of Poland, France once again declared war on Germany and by 1940 three quarters of France was under German occupation. The Vichy Regime, which governed unoccupied France, worked with the Nazis to maintain its own power and was complicit in the deportation of 76,000 French Jews to concentration camps.[2] The combined forces of the French resistance and Allied armies, along with a weakened Nazi government, took France back from Germany and contributed to the conclusion of World War II. The experience of the two world wars ended the longstanding conflict between the Catholic Church and the Republicans; by the end of WWII, Catholics had pledged themselves to the Republican cause.[3] 

Post-war economic growth, a low birth rate, and the loss of young men in war led to rising demand for migrant labor from former colonial states. Beginning in the 1980s, the French government actively promoted “integration” as a way to culturally assimilate resident migrant populations, but many French citizens were uncomfortable with integrated immigrants. Immigration issues, combined with growing unemployment, triggered the rise of the far-right political party Le Front National (FN).

Today, the FN is the leading voice in nationalist French politics, with support among conservative nationalists and among some Catholic conservatives.[4] Though French politics is dominated by two strains—socialism and conservatism—far-right conservatives and their emphasis on immigration and its real and construed impacts influences mainstream political narratives. 

Ultimately, French citizens of widely different backgrounds are engaged in conversations over the values of the French Republic, and especially equality and laïcité, as ethnic and religious pluralism deepens. While these values assert an essential equality to be attributed to all French citizens, in reality, French society has yet to come to terms with who can be fully French, and if one can be French without discarding other religious and ethnic identity markers.[5] Such questions remain relevant around debates over the assimilation and integration of migrants and especially around public identity markers such as religious dress. Supporters of laïcité argue that it is an essential aspect of French life and society, and critical for solutions to political and social conflicts that threaten French national unity.[6] On the other hand, its critics argue that laïcité threatens possibilities for a peaceful multireligious and multicultural democratic France that encompasses the identity expressions of all of its diverse citizens.[7]

The President of France, Francois Hollande, belongs to the Socialist Party, and has been in power since 2012. Hollande is the first self-proclaimed atheist to hold this office. His two predecessors, Nicholas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, were Catholic, like much of the French population. Hollande has gone on record saying he respects the faith of others, and in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings Hollande attempted to dispel Islamophobic discourse by declaring that Islam is compatible with democracy. 

One of Hollande’s most publicized political opponents is Marine Le Pen, the Roman Catholic leader of the Front National. Le Pen has gained notoriety for her opposition to illegal immigration —a dominant concern in France—and the Schengen agreement, which enables free movement without border checks through many EU countries. After comparing Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation, Le Pen has also faced charges for inciting racial hatred, and went on trial in October 2015. Le Pen’s father, from whom she is estranged, was the Front National’s long-time leader. He himself was repeatedly convicted for inciting racial hatred, and has been described as anti-Semitic. Following the terrorist attacks in France, it is anticipated that support for Marine Le Pen will grow. In spite of these predictions the Front National suffered great losses in the regional elections of 2015. 

Immigration 

The “Calais Crisis” has been ongoing since a refugee camp was set up in Sangatte, France in 1999, to house the many migrants who were there without shelter. The refugee camp drew thousands of refugees hoping to be granted asylum. The closure of the Sangatte refugee camp in 2001 and 2002 led to riots, but migrants have continued to construct makeshift camps in Calais.  A new migrant center was set up in 2014. Due to the dire living conditions there, the area is often described as “The Calais Jungle.” The some 4,000 migrants of the Calais Jungle have embarked on treacherous journeys from countries such as Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. In these countries there is often civil unrest, and religious and political conflict, such as in the case of Syria. The danger does not end for these refugees at Calais—many individuals are killed by oncoming trains or vehicles while trying to cross the border to the UK.

French authorities have long struggled to prevent these people from illegally entering the UK, other areas of France, and Italy. Many undocumented migrants are arrested—upwards of 18,000 people were arrested by French police in a six-month period in 2015 alone. In 2016, the authorities ordered for 1,000 of the people staying in the “Calais Jungle” to be removed. In January 2016, both a makeshift mosque and a church for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians were bulldozed to make way for new security measures, and in late February, French authorities began the process of razing shacks and tents, resulting in protests and clashes within the camp.

Following the Paris attacks of 2015, the debate about migration in Europe, which reached had new heights, took a new turn. When a Syrian passport used to gain entry to Greece was found near to the body of an attacker, the Polish government blamed the influx of refugees for the terrorism. President Hollande of France, however, resisted this narrative and honored his commitment to receive tens of thousands of refugees. Many have cast doubts on the idea that refugees are in any way to blame for the acts of terror in Paris, and some have even postulated that the attackers planted the passport to cause further unrest.

[1] Philippe Rigoulot, “Protestants and the French nation under the Third Republic: Between recognition and assimilation,” National Identities, Vol. 11, No. 1 (2009), pp. 45–57.

[2] Lloyd, “Race and Ethnicity,” pp. 34–52.

[3] Celene Beraud, “France,” The Encyclopedia of Religion and Politics, ed. Robert Wuthnow (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2007), pp. 306–308

[4] Beraud, “France,” pp. 306–308; Lloyd, “Race and Ethnicity,” pp. 34–52, 43.

[5] Lloyd, “Race and Ethnicity,” pp. 34–52.

[6] James A. Beckford, “’Laïcité,’ ‘Dystopia,’ and the Reaction to New Religious movements in France,” Critical Issues in Social Justice (2004), pp. 27–40.

[7] Jonathan Laurence, The Emancipation of Europe's Muslims: The State's Role in Minority Integration (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012); Remy Leveau, New European Identity and Citizenship, (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2002).

Image Sources:

Alfred Dreyfus, Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin, Wikimedia Commons 

A yellow star worn by French Jews during the German occupation of France in WWII, Wikimedia Commons,