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Out of the political salt shaker

France’s pivotal presidential election is testing the ability of French evangelicals and social conservatives to impact politics

Out of the political salt shaker

François Fillon salutes supporters after a campaign rally in Paris. (Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

MONTBÉLIARD, France—The French revere the notion of laïcité (secularism) and hold it alongside the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity—but how it is put into practice may be changing. When a leading candidate in this spring’s presidential election, François Fillon, declared that his Catholic faith informs his policy positions, he was the first major party candidate to make such a profession in 50 years. Meanwhile, the National Council of Evangelicals of France (CNEF) has begun a campaign to inform citizens of their right to freedom of expression.

CNEF leader Thierry Le Gall preached on a cold Sunday in January to 1,000 evangelical Christians gathered in Montbéliard, France, near the Swiss border, for an annual joint service of 15 local churches. He spoke of Christians as the salt of the earth and evangelicals “getting out of the salt shaker.” Afterward, he told me about the encouraging signs he sees: “A younger generation of Christians is moving out of political apathy.” The first test will be this spring’s elections to replace unpopular President François Hollande, a Socialist.

In France’s two-tiered electoral process, if no candidate receives a majority in the first voting round on April 23, the top two contenders proceed to the second round on May 7. National Front party candidate Marine Le Pen leads the polls at 25 percent and is likely to go on to the second round. She dreams of a Trump-style populist victory and campaigns to stop France’s refugee program, limit immigration, and schedule a “Frexit” vote on leaving the European Union within six months of becoming president.

Le Pen positions herself as the candidate of those who feel disrespected by the establishment, but critics say her nationalist rhetoric is divisive and her party has not changed though her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, previously convicted as a racist and Holocaust denier, no longer heads it. Critics also say her blaming Muslim immigrants for high unemployment and crime makes a dangerous statement in an unstable social climate.

Associated Press/Photo by David Vincent

Marine Le Pen greets supporters in Nantes. (Associated Press/Photo by David Vincent)

With many French willing to vote for anyone but Le Pen, whoever finishes second in round one will be favored to win round two, when only two candidates are on the ballot. The main contenders for that spot are Fillon, a Republican, and independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, who was Hollande’s finance minister but left government last year to form his own party, En Marche! (“On the Move!”), and launch a presidential bid.

Fillon’s November primary victory over established candidates surprised the country, and media credited the group Sens Commun—“Common Sense”—with the victory. Sens Commun’s membership is small—9,000 in a country of 66 million—but its members are young, organized professionals active on social media. The group’s leader is Madeleine de Jessey, 27, a political activist and instructor at the Sorbonne who attended a Catholic school and formed Sens Commun in the wake of demonstrations against the 2013 law legalizing same-sex marriage in France.

The law, championed by Hollande, was a turning point for opponents like de Jessey and others in Sens Commun who realized that their political non-engagement had enabled a huge cultural and legal shift. The group now works within the Republican party to bring issues like the definition of marriage, education, and protection of the unborn and elderly into the French political debate.

Fillon’s statement about his faith initially made him appealing to many evangelicals, especially since he has made defense of the family an issue in his campaign. While he said he would not attempt repealing the same-sex marriage law, he wants to rewrite the section on gay adoption to protect a child’s ties with biological parents. That’s fine with de Jessey, who says the country is not culturally ready for a repeal, and Fillon’s positions are steps in the right direction from a viable candidate. Fillon also favors restricting in vitro fertilization to opposite-sex couples.

However, a Fillon presidency is no longer the sure thing it once seemed. Early this year, accusations that Fillon had misused state funds surfaced, tarnishing his squeaky-clean image. Fillon’s subsequent dip in the polls created a vacuum easily filled by the charismatic Macron. Macron has tried to distance himself from his former boss, Hollande, and position himself as a centrist candidate, but critics say his platform lacks substance and is a continuation of Hollande’s lackluster policies. Campaigning as the candidate of innovation, Macron invited American climate change researchers worried about Trump funding cuts to “make France their home.” Later he repeated the invitation in an English recording that seemed more a demonstration to the French of his progressivism than an actual message to the United States.

While Macron has passed Fillon to the No. 2 spot in the polls, investigators are now looking into purported finance ministry favoritism under Macron’s tenure. Meanwhile, judges have also summoned Le Pen concerning allegations of misusing EU funds.

Four Top Candidates for President

The only major party candidate not (yet?) under investigation is Hollande’s successor in the Socialist Party: Benoît Hamon promotes a “universal income,” legalization of marijuana, and the repeal of labor reform laws. But the Socialist Party is expected to fare poorly at the polls.

After Fillon’s financial scandal broke, many French assumed he was finished. By early March, many in his campaign had jumped ship and party leaders were calling for a new candidate. But an unprecedented 200,000 supporters—many mobilized on short notice by Sens Commun—braved freezing temperatures in Paris to show their support, effectively quelling the opposition and keeping their candidate in the race.

Whoever wins the presidency will be part of a changing French political scene. In January, Le Gall preached from Jeremiah 29:7—“We are called to work for the good of the city where God has put us.” Sens Commun is taking that to heart: Many of its members have been elected at local and regional levels, and more will be on the ballot for the legislative elections that follow a month after the presidential election.

—Jenny Lind Schmitt is a graduate of this year’s World Journalism Institute mid-career course

Netherlands: Dutch divisions

The Netherlands voted March 15 in an election seen as a bellwether for other European elections this year. With record voter turnout, the Dutch reelected Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his center-right VVD party, and rejected his main rival, anti-immigration candidate Geert Wilders and the nationalist Party for Freedom (PVV). Overall, Rutte’s party lost seats in Parliament and Wilders’ party gained, but in his victory speech Rutte claimed Holland had said no to “the wrong kind of populism.”

John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Mark Rutte (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

Because of the fragmentation of the Dutch political scene—28 parties were on the ballot—coalition governing is the norm. Wilders’ PVV came in second place, but since other parties vowed beforehand not to work with him, coalition building may be a lengthy process.

Before the vote Wilders said he’d already achieved some of his aims by forcing integration and immigration into the political debate. Indeed, Rutte’s campaign rhetoric on immigrants became a softer echo of Wilders’. Rutte likely received a boost from his firm stance in a recent diplomatic spat with Turkey. Dutch officials stopped at their border Turkish ministers who were campaigning to dual nationals in the Netherlands on behalf of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish officials could not hold rallies, and heated exchanges between the two nations have led to a halt of high-level diplomatic relations. —J.L.S.

Germany: Testing Merkel’s mettle

Germans are preparing to vote Sept. 24 on whether to give Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) a fourth four-year term. The big election issue is Merkel’s open-door policy to Middle East refugees, which faces criticism in Germany as well as in other European nations. Since 2015 Germany has taken in over 1.5 million refugees, mostly from war-torn Syria, and many Germans say this has overtaxed their generous social system.

Under pressure from her center-right party along with those in the further-right Alternative for Germany, Merkel has pledged to reduce immigration and is encouraging voluntary repatriation. Alternative for Germany is capitalizing on populist sentiment and calling for closing Germany’s borders and limiting decrees from Brussels, the European Union capital. The Berlin Christmas market terror attack by a Tunisian migrant exacerbated the debate.

Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

Schulz and Merkel (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

Until recently, a fourth term for Merkel seemed straightforward, but she now has a strong challenger in former European Parliament President Martin Schulz. Though Schulz has not yet detailed his platform, his candidacy appears ready to galvanize left-leaning Germans who did not vote in the last elections. The two parties are polling evenly. Though immigration is the hot-button issue for this election cycle, Schulz is unlikely to change Germany’s policies significantly.

Meanwhile, record numbers of migrants are seeking Christian baptism: Churches have scheduled additional baptism classes and created materials to help accompany converts from Islam. While skeptics say asylum seekers request baptism only to improve their chances of staying in the country, pastors testify that during classes, which last several months, they see participants genuinely engaging. Pastors can also discuss the consequences of conversion, should the migrants return to their country of origin.

Many aging congregations welcome the youthful shift migrant populations bring. “We used to be a church of only old people, but that has changed,” said deaconess Rosemarie Götz of the Haus Gotteshilfe church near Berlin. “Our members say, ‘We prayed that God would send us growth, but we never imagined that it would come like this!’” —J.L.S.

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny Lind Schmitt is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute Mid-Career Course.