There was something darkly symbolic about the fire that nearly destroyed the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris on April 15 – the morrow of Palm Sunday — and the fall amid heavy smoke of its 93-metre iron spire. One couldn’t help linking the religious and architectural disaster with a deeper crisis: the passing of France as a distinct country, or at least as the Western, Judeo-Christian nation it had hitherto been presumed to be.
Writing in Causeur the morning after, Hadrien Desuin, a conservative journalist, conveyed some of these feelings as he observed: “Beyond the cathedral’s fire, France itself is burning …We have witnessed the Church’s slow death … and now even the old stones are collapsing… Yes, France may die… That’s what Notre-Dame’s flames tell us.”
Prophesying imminent doom is admittedly as old as civilisation itself. While most such warnings remain merely rhetorical, many others are however validated by ensuing events, from the forebodings of Cassandra of Troy three thousand years ago – as recorded by Homer — to Winston Churchill’s statements in the wake of the Munich accords in 1938.
Regarding France in 2019, it can no longer be denied that a momentous and hazardous transformation, a “Great Switch”, is in the making. Jerôme Fourquet, an analyst for the very mainstream Ifop polling institute, garnered in a book released last February, L’Archipel français (The French Archipelago), a wide range of figures in this respect. According to him, Catholicism, once France’s main religion, is indeed waning. So is, by implication, a traditional view of life, death, family, individual destiny and politics. By the same token, immigrant Muslim communities with completely different outlooks and values are rising within French society at a rapid pace, and getting ever more assertive. L’Archipel français was awarded the 2019 Political Book Prize by a jury comprised of the political editor of thirty leading newspapers and media.
“The spectacular decline of Catholicism has been France’s main religious phenomenon over the past fifty years,” Fourquet writes in his opening chapter. In 1961, Catholicism was the social norm and baptism a near universal practice: 92 per cent of the French were then baptised. Today, 80 per cent of the present population is still reported as baptised. However, this is largely an optical illusion resulting from higher life expectancy: 46 per cent of the present French population were more than 50 years old in 2012, hence born before 1961. The figures are quite different when it comes to younger citizens: the younger the bracket, the fewer are baptised.
While 79 per cent of middle-aged citizens (35-49 years old) were baptised in 2012, the proportion fell to 70 per cent among the young adults (25-34) and to 65 per cent among the very young adults (18-25). Moreover, only 58 per cent of the baptised French were considering baptising their own children, and an even lower proportion actually did it. Among the children aged 0 to 7, “48.8 out of 100 were baptised in 1999, 40 out of 100 baptised in 2005, 34 in 2010, and 30 in 2015.”
Quite naturally, a decreasing interest in Catholicism’s prime sacrament translates into a decreasing interest in other sacraments as well, and indifference towards the most pressing teachings of the Church. In 1961, 38 per cent of baptised Catholics said they attended Mass “every Sunday” or “as often as possible”. In 2012, just 7 per cent attended Mass.
The most immediate reason for the decline of French Catholicism is a growing shortage of priests and other clergy, a very severe difficulty for a priest-based religion. “There were as many priests, monks and nuns in France in 1950 as at the beginning of the Revolution in 1789: 177,000 against 170,000. Their number fell to 51,500 in 2015.” That is to say to less than one third of the original number.
The turning point, according to Fourquet, was Vatican II: the Ecumenical Council of 1962-65, which undertook drastic reforms in the Church’s life. Priests were requested to forgo much of their traditional authority, and at the same time to stay poor, obedient and celibate. Many of them felt that was too much, and left the Church; likewise, many Catholic seminarians desisted from taking vows. This combined trend – an exit of older priests and a shortage of new priests – accelerated over the years, reducing France’s Catholic parish clergy from 25,203 priests in 1990 to 11,908 in 2015. Half of what is left of the clergy today are old and beyond the age of retirement, a situation “that will lead mechanically to a further decrease in the coming years”. The French Church is relying nowadays on “Southern countries’ priests”, a euphemism for African, Latin American and Asian recruits, to keep a minimum of 7-8,000 parishes operational. Quite a reversal of fortune for a country that in the 19th century provided three quarters of the missionaries who actually founded the African and Asian churches.
Quoting historian Guillaume Cuchet, Fourquet notes that Catholicism was until 1962 “commensurate with the French nation-state itself”, and as such played an important conservative and stabilising role in French society at large, especially as the custodian of family values. Once the Church withered, the West’s late 20th century and early 21st century “anthropological revolution” — sexual laisser-faire and the end of the family – went on unchecked, among practising as well as nominal Catholics or unbaptised post-Catholics. Marriage, either religious or civil, was quietly discarded for cohabitation or civil partnerships. From more than 400,000 marriages a year in the early 1970s, the numbers fell to less than 250,000 in the 2010s; divorce rose from 40,000 a year (one in ten marriages) to 100,000 (one in 2,5). Births out of wedlock grew from 10 per cent fifty years ago to 30 per cent in 1990 and 60 per cent in 2018. Support for abortion rose from 48 to 75 per cent; acceptance of gay lifestyles and same-sex marriage grew from less than 50 per cent in 1995 to almost 70 per cent in 2014; support for LGBT procreation and adoption rights grew from 33 per cent in 1996 to 53 per cent in 2014. No wonder that the birthrate spiraled down: the total fertility rate dropped below replacement level – two children per woman – from 1975 on. Admittedly, it did not fall as much as in other Western countries: 1.3 in Spain, 1.5 in Germany, 1.8 in the United Kingdom and in the United States. But this may have to do with the presence in France of a very large, and largely Muslim, immigrant community.
Census figures based on origin, religion or ethnicity are banned or restricted in France by law. As a result, very low and unrealistic demographic estimations of French Islam have been circulated for decades. As of today, many academics and some government agencies still routinely contend that the Muslim population does not exceed 6 to 8 per cent of the general population in Metropolitan France (the overseas counties not included), that is to say 3.9 to 5.2 million out of 65 million. According to Fourquet, these numbers do not fit squarely with other data, such as the very high proportion of Muslim first names among French children born in 2016: 18.8 per cent nationwide, 25 to 35 or 40 per cent in highly urbanised counties in Greater Paris, Greater Lyons, the Mediterranean area, Eastern France, Northern France. Such a discrepancy means, to say the least, that French Muslims have many more children than non-Muslims. It may also imply, as many demographers or analysts had always suspected since the 1990s (1), that the authorised data on Muslim immigration, including illegal immigration, had always been flawed, and that there were far more Muslim parents to start with than assumed.
One reason why French Islam has been demographically underestimated is that surveys, when conducted, have focused on first generation immigrants from Muslim countries, rather than on second generation as well or on converts. True enough, the French showed in the past a remarkable ability to absorb and assimilate many immigrant communities, including non-Christian or non-European groups. But this pattern does not seem to be working when it comes to Muslims.
Fourquet draws a comparison between two well-documented 20th-century immigrant groups, the Catholic Polish immigrants in Northern France and the Eastern Orthodox Armenian refugees in Marseilles, and the 21st-century Muslim immigrant community. First generation Poles and Armenians tended to be very conservative, to marry among themselves and to give their children Polish or Armenian first names. Second generation Poles and Armenians stayed fairly true to their roots and religion, but otherwise fully integrated into the French mainstream, opened up to intermarriage and gave their own children French first names.
21st century second generation Muslims are, on the contrary, just as conservative and ethnocentric as their parents, and even more so in many respects. Outwardly expressed religiosity has been increasing over the past two decades: 71 per cent of all Muslims fast nowadays on Ramadan, against 60 per cent in the 1990s; only 22 per cent of all Muslims admit drinking alcohol in 2016, against 39 per cent in the 1990s; 35 per cent of all Muslim women wear the hijab, against 24 per cent in 2003. Intermarriage with non-Muslims has been steadily declining: even Muslim men who in the 20th century felt free, as “dominant partners“, to consort with non-Muslim women, now prefer to restrict themselves to Muslim women. And most second generation Muslim parents still insist giving Muslim first names to their infants.
According to Fourquet, there is an even deeper “anthropological” divide between the non-Muslim majority and a rapidly growing Muslim minority: the emphasis on female premarital virginity. While premarital “purity” is seen as “important” by only 8 per cent of the French nationwide and only 23 per cent of practicing Catholics, it is described as required by 67 per cent of the citizens who claim a “Muslim cultural heritage” and by 74 per cent of strictly religious Muslims.
Fourquet does not question the French Muslims’ right to a distinct identity, nor their right to uphold family and marriage values that, a few decades ago, were favored by non-Muslims as well. Yet he makes clear that a drastic Muslim separation from the mainstream French in everyday life bears consequences.
First and foremost, segregation – or “partition”, as François Hollande, the then Socialist President of France, warned in 2016 – is a recipe for civil war. The less they mingle and interact with the global population, the more French Muslims are mired in salafism, jihadism and other Muslim supremacy ideologies. And the more they may be tempted to act according to them.
Outbursts of high intensity terrorism (attacks against military or police personnels, murder of Jews, including children and senior citizens, the assassination of an 80-year-old Catholic priest during Mass, the mass killings in Paris and Nice in 2015 and 2016) are only one side of the coin. It is likely that the elections this week will strengthen the evidence of “low-intensity” terrorism against non-Muslims in Muslim-dominated areas: neighbours or retailers pressured to leave, churches or synagogues attacked by arson or defaced, public buildings torched. Once the area is cleared of a non-Muslim presence, a Sharia-based State within the State is established, where everybody must conform to Muslim ways, especially women, and non-Muslim visitors are either banned or closely monitored. More often than not, Sharia rule is enforced by Muslim mobsters, specialising in drugs, who have a vested interest into the existence of such “no-go zones”. Fourquet dwells at length on Grand Mirail, a neighbourhood in Toulouse of 40,000 people turned into an Islamic enclave. It is a case, according to the French police, of a rampant “hybridisation” of petty theft, drug trafficking and religious radicalisation that ultimately leads to jihadist terrorism.
A further consequence of Muslim separatism is poverty. While Greater Toulouse, the home of Airbus, is one of France’s most developed metropolises, scoring well ahead of the national average in science, science-related business, industry, media and communication, the art and performing arts, Islamic enclaves such as Grand Mirail are among the less developed, with a 30 per cent unemployment rate (even 50 per cent among the young adults) and 50 per cent of the households living below the poverty line. The more Islamic a neighbourhood is, the less effective the school system, and the less likely its younger inhabitants are to get a job. This is a vicious circle that usually reinforces Islamic conformity, hostility towards the outside world and support for delinquent or terrorist networks. Similar patterns can be found everywhere.
Fourquet is forced to conclude that France, once proudly self-defined as a “one and single nation”, is collapsing “at amazing pace” into “ethnocultural heterogeneity”, and that its once extensive state-controlled and state-funded administrative and social framework is unravelling in the process. The Gilets Jaunes(Yellow Vests) crisis, which erupted while he was writing his book, may be in a large way a response of the ordinary French to an unprecedented disaster – and to the insensitivity displayed by President Emmanuel Macron and parts of the elite towards them. It may also indicate, as Fourquet suggests, that the process has reached such a point that France as a nation has given way to an “archipelago” of competing subsocieties.
Naturally, other factors have been at work as well: the transfer of political and economic power from the elected French government to the opaque, unelected, EU Commission; the advent of the euro, in place of the old national currency; the end of military conscription, which used to bring together young citizens from very different backgrounds. All in all, France may be well beyond repair. An Ifop poll released last February that Fourquet was not able to include in his essay, but on which he commented in an interview with Atlantico, shows that 67 per cent of the French don’t believe anymore in such things as “the Republic” or “Republican values”, and that 66 per cent are not moved by such concepts as “national identity” — even among Marine Le Pen’s National Rally sympathisers.
Michel Gurfinkiel is the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a Ginsburg-Ingerman Fellow at Middle East Forum, and editor emeritus of Valeurs Actuelles.