Populism, religion, and the rise of the post-religious right in France

    Notre Dame de Paris in 2013
    (source: Peter Haas, Wikimedia Commons).

While previous research has found a “hijacking of religion” by populist parties in Europe, and the use of Christianity—along with secular principles—as an identity marker against Islam, this has not prevented the French Rassemblement National (National Rally, RN) from “becoming increasingly secularist in its policies, personnel and electorate,” according to Tobias Cramer (University of Oxford) in an article published in the journal Party Politics (January). In addition to drawing on recent literature, Cramer’s research draws on data derived from interviews with 20 elite leaders, including key RN figures, both on the secularist and Christian side. The author argues that broader lessons can be drawn from that example about the ways in which European right-wing populist movements use both religious and secular narratives in their programmatic agenda. The RN received 18.7 percent of the vote in the 2022 parliamentary elections in France. In recent years, it intensified its references to the Christian identity of France. But it has also sought “to publicly position itself as the defender of a more separationist reading of laïcité,” as secularist principles are called in France.

Cramer observes that both Catholicism and laïcité are used “primarily as secularised cultural identity markers against Islam.” Despite Christian rhetorics—which actually emphasize Catholicism as historical heritage, as Christendom, and not as religious belief—the RN shows no convergence with Catholic social doctrine. Bishops are expected to “shut their mouth” on political issues. Christian voices are becoming less heard within the RN. The RN defines its priorities in relation to identitarian issues. “The repoliticisation of religion and laïcité in French politics appears less linked to a revival of Catholicism, than to the emergence of a new cleavage between cosmopolitans and communitarians.” Distanced from Christian doctrines, ethics and institutions, the RN makes use of Christian symbols in a secularized way. Cramer concludes that those developments may also apply to the use of Christian symbols by populist right parties in other countries. In Germany, for example, the AfD presents itself as the defender of the Christian West but is reported to perform best “amongst irreligious Germans.”

(Party Politics, https://journals.sagepub.com/home/ppqa)