PARIS — The general reaction of Catholics in France to the election of a new president seems to be one of quiet relief.
Nicolas Sarkozy was elected with a clear majority over his socialist opponent Segolene Royal. In pre-election interviews and broadcasts, he had voiced support for families, opposition to euthanasia and a general sense of respect for France’s Christian traditions.
“We feel we’ve avoided the worst option. The new president is surrounded by a number of people who have moral convictions. We feel we probably won’t go further in the direction of negating all family values” said Armand de Malherbe, a prominent Catholic and a former regional elected official.
France legalized abortion some years ago and there has been pressure to legalize euthanasia and homosexual “marriage.”
Sarkozy is a baptized Catholic who has described himself as a believer but an irregular churchgoer. He has spoken of the importance he places in the Church as a foundation for general moral values.
“I am of Catholic culture, Catholic tradition, Catholic faith,” he wrote in a book outlining his political and ideological stance before the election. “Even if my religious practice is episodic, I acknowledge myself as a member of the Catholic Church.”
Polls suggest that in the first round of voting, large numbers of Catholics supported Philippe de Villiers, a candidate with a strong pro-life and pro-family record in public life. But he failed to gain enough votes to enter the second round, which left the field to Sarkozy and Royal.
“Royal was committed to introducing euthanasia and same-sex ‘marriage,’ including the right of same-sex couples to artificial procreation” said Tugdual Derville, director of the Alliance pour le Droit de la Vie (Alliance for the Right to Life) in Paris. “Sarkozy did not support these things. We have real hope that we can work with some of the people in the new government, especially on issues such as control of pornography.”
One member of Sarkozy’s team is Christine Boutane, a strong Catholic who has been close to the right-to-life movement and is a consultor for the Pontifical Council for the Family in Rome.
Sarkozy had focused on the theme of unity, including the importance of closing the gap between rich and poor in France, and of ensuring fair access to educational and other opportunities for all. This was also a theme emphasized in statements by the French bishops’ conference, which also mentioned the question of immigration.
This is a major issue in France, where massive immigration from Islamic countries has meant the presence in many cities of large Islamic communities often not sharing language, culture or social connections with their host country.
While the bishops’ statements emphasized the social needs of immigrants and their rights and requirements for their future lives in France, Sarkozy had spoken of the need to control future numbers, and his speeches reflected concerns of many French people. But the bishops noted that he emphasized respect for all religions, and for religious values in general.
“Sarkozy personally identified himself as a Catholic and made repeated references to this” said Ludovine de la Rochere, spokesman for the French bishops’ conference. “But as a politician he understood the importance of all religions in French political life whether Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. This gave him a significant advantage.”
Royal, brought up in a traditional Catholic family, has lived with a man for more than 20 years without marriage, and they have four children. Sarkozy has been divorced and remarried.
Supporters of Sarkozy have been at pains to emphasize that they were not opposed to the idea of electing a woman as president of France.
“I actually thought it would be good to have a woman leading France, good for the nation,” said one pro-life Catholic. “But not this woman, not with the values and ideas she was proposing.”
Joanna Bogle is based in London.