After meeting stiff resistance for decades, the French National Front is now gaining ground among Catholics.

For years, commentators had spoken of a “Catholic exception”: the faithful had seemed notably hostile to the party compared with other social groups. But in last December’s regional elections, Catholics voted for the National Front in proportionately greater numbers than the rest of the population (32 per cent compared with 28.4 per cent, according to the pollsters IFOP).

This was a huge surprise. Historically, the National Front has been weakest in strongly Catholic areas such as Brittany and western France. Not only that: Marine Le Pen, party leader since 2011, has taken a hardline view of laïcité, the state ethos of secularism. “Priests should stay in the sacristy,” she told the Christian weekly La Vie, indicating that she saw no role whatsoever for clergy in public life. The Church, in contrast, has promoted a softer form of laïcité, encouraging believers to express their faith in the political arena.

The National Front’s uncompromisingly secularist approach has been strengthened further by the rise of Florian Philippot, vice president since 2012. Commenting on the burkini controversy this summer, he said: “All religious symbols – crosses, kippas and veils – should be banned from the public square.”

So what has inspired Catholics to flock, as it were, to the gates of Montretout, the manor owned by Le Pen’s family in the west of Paris?

First, the National Front benefited immensely from the protests over same-sex marriage in 2013. The Manif Pour Tous coalition, backed by the Catholic hierarchy and the right-wing party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), organised large demonstrations in Paris and elsewhere. For many young people, it was their first experience as political activists. Now, three years later, many Catholics feel betrayed by the UMP. The party, which is known today as the Republicans, is led by Nicolas Sarkozy. In 2014, the former French president promised to repeal the gay marriage law. Just a year later he reversed course and said he would uphold it.

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