Catholic-inspired Bayrou seeks to break French left-right mould

Catholic-inspired Bayrou seeks to break French left-right mould

With the first round of France’s presidential election looming, opinion polls credit Catholic father of six and Pyrenees racehorse breeder, Francois Bayrou, with around 22% support, just behind Socialist, Segolene Royal (25%), and presidential favorite, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy (26%).

It’s a remarkable effort by the 55 year old former schoolteacher and president of the ‘centrist’ Union for French Democracy (UDF) party, a relatively small party boasting only 29 deputies in France’s 577 seat National Assembly.

What’s more, if Bayrou manages to outscore either Sarkozy or (more likely) Royal, then he is likely to emerge as favorite for the run off as socialists and conservatives seek to block their rivals from the Presidency.

It is well worth looking then at the political – and spiritual – heritage that Francois Bayrou represents. Indeed, Bayrou has never hidden neither his Catholic faith nor its importance for his vocation as a politician. “I am a Christian-democrat and fully aware of the significance of the linkage between the two words”, he repeated recently.

Bayrou spent much of his youth, he recounts, in the non-violent circles of the Gandhian Christian pacifists and followers of Lanza del Vasto, which is why he feels at home among ecologists, whose “movement draws on the same sources”.

And many of Bayrou’s positions do in fact correspond to those of the modern environmental movement – moratorium on GM foods, support for bio-fuels, organic farming, a call to “defend the planet”.

His positions on these and other issues illustrate why, even though his French critics often attempt to classify Bayrou with the right, he would generally be regarded as centre left on the Australian political spectrum.

Even on litmus-test ‘faith’ issues, Bayrou has managed to carve out political positions that seek to respect Catholic teaching without necessarily alienating other groups. He backs legal recognition of ‘civil unions’ among homosexuals, for example, while insisting that such unions remain legally distinct from marriage between a man and woman. He also supports the right of homosexuals to adopt children as individuals – as heterosexual singles may also do – but not as couples.

He also opposed the Iraq war because it was “not a just war” and was “contrary to the wishes of the international community and the UN”. However, he also criticised Europe’s role in the crisis, saying that if the continent had managed to unite, it could have perhaps prevented the alliance of the UK with the US on the issue.

Catholic-inspired Bayrou seeks to break French left-right mouldThis concern for a strong federal Europe is another Bayrou characteristic as well as a further indication of his political-spiritual heritage, which can be traced directly to the Catholic-inspired Popular Republican Movement (MRP) party of the 1940s.

Bayrou’s own father had belonged to the MRP, which was founded largely by ‘resisters’ of the German occupation and included such luminaries as Robert Schuman, later recognised as “Father of Europe” for his role in the launch of what is now the European Union.

It was also no accident that the MRP in 1947 chose as its honorary president the ageing Marc Sangnier, who fifty years previously had founded the Sillon or Furrow democratic movement. This became the prototype of the later Catholic lay movements, such as the Young Catholic Students, Young Catholic Workers and JAC (Rural YCW), to which Bayrou’s father also belonged.

What the Sillon had done was to pioneer a form of participatory democracy – a “method of democratic education” – based on the creation of ‘study circles’ that sought to take action on current social issues in the light of the Gospel and Church teaching. But a 1910 letter from Pope Pius X to the French bishops condemning the Sillon’s methods as “dangerous” put paid to the movement.

It would take another 35 years – including the emergence of communism and Nazism – before Pope Pius XII would reverse this decision in his 1944 Christmas message on “Democracy and a Lasting Peace”. Pius XII now praised democracy for fostering the people’s “consciousness of their own responsibility”, in effect rehabilitating the Sillon’s concept of democracy just as the movement’s inheritors were about to take power in government.

Significantly, the Sillon understanding of democracy as the form of “organisation that tends to maximise the consciousness and responsibility of everyone” is today still cited almost word for word by Bayrou’s UDF.

This is clearly part of a longstanding effort by Bayrou to link his political movement with a century old tradition of Catholic-inspired lay-led (not clerical) social democracy.

As Bayrou has gradually distanced his party from its earlier alliances on the right it has begun to claim the whole political centre. Bayrou’s strategy thus depends on isolating what he sees as a shrinking and outdated left and right.

“The world isn’t black and white – it’s in colour,” Bayrou now says, denouncing the two-hundred-year old left-right divide which he believes has left France trapped in “immobilism” and “stagnation”.

Catholic-inspired Bayrou seeks to break French left-right mouldWhat’s more, if Bayrou succeeds, he intends to use his presidential mandate to introduce a 6th Republic succeeding DeGaulle’s 5th Republic model that he criticises for having regressed into a “republican monarchy.”

Again, Bayrou doesn’t hesitate to promote his new republic under the double banner of consciousness and responsibility.

France’s institutions need “to advance a consciousness in its citizens of the country’s reality”, he says, “so as to enable them to share and to assume the choices made in their name”.

Thus Bayrou’s 6th republic is to be founded on the principles of responsibility and its corollary, legitimacy (or representativeness).

In practice, he sees this happening by the French president playing a greater role in forming a multi-colour government free from the restrictions of the left-right divide.

It is an ambitious program but one for which he also draws support from those who are still close to the Sillon tradition. Anicette Sangnier, president of a new Sillon Circle, backs Bayrou’s effort and says his views correspond closely to those of her grandfather.

“Marc Sangnier often used to say ‘I’m used to planting the seeds without reaping the harvest’. Perhaps harvest time has finally arrived,” she says.


Catholic-inspired Bayrou seeks to break French left-right mould (Eureka Street) 02/04/2007