There is a long history of terror and religion in France. The Reformation led to religious wars as bloody and terrifying as those in Germany. The St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 saw about 2000 Protestants (Huguenots) murdered in Paris and about 8000 in the provinces. England and Europe were horrified. The Edict of Nantes granted protection to Protestants and was a step toward tolerance and a separation of Church and State, but Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin would be instrumental in governing France, acting effectively as Prime Ministers.
In 1685 the Sun King, Louis XIV, revoked the Edict, and Protestantism was again illegal. Protestant clergy had two weeks to convert or get out. The consequent brain and capital drain – the reason South African cricketers have curious names – damaged France, much as the expulsion of the Jews damaged Germany later. Louis XVI reinstated toleration just before the Revolution but the Catholic Church was a rich and corrupt part of government and was hated as much as the aristocracy.
The position of the Catholic Church in France then has been compared to that of the Jewish community in Germany later. The abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres owned land equivalent to two arrondissements in Paris. Accordingly, much of the venom of the Revolution was directed against the Church and its clergy. The object was to strip them of their power and wealth. Many wanted to annihilate the Church.
In 1790 the National Assembly enacted the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. They broke with Rome. The clergy were to be elected. They had to take an oath of loyalty. This split the clergy. There were a appalling massacres of priests. The revolt in the West (the Vendee) was both Royalist and Catholic, and the slaughter was atrocious. Up to a third of the population was extirpated in what we would call genocide. Priests were locked on boats that were then scuttled on the Loire and men and women were stripped naked and flung off the boats in ‘republican marriages.’ During the Terror proper, blood literally ran in the gutters of France from the guillotine.
There is more about religion in the French Revolution in the attached. Religion in France.
Napoleon restored order and did a deal with the Vatican (the Concordat) for much the same reasons that Hitler would: to shut them up and to lock them in. The Church remembered the drownings and the slaughters rather than the Rights of Man and it became mindlessly reactionary. There was violence and terror in uprisings in 1830, 1848, and 1870 as France tried one form of government after another. The Church was not a main player in these events, but it was again seen as the party of the established social order and the enemy of the poor. And the Church was bitterly resented for its interference in social and sexual life by its teaching on birth control and its insane strictures on dancing – the polka and waltz were seen as morally dangerous.
Toward the end of the century France was convulsed by the Dreyfus Affair. It recurs throughout Proust. A high ranking Jewish army officer was cashiered on false evidence and process. The army covered up murderously and the Establishment backed it up to the hilt. So did the Church. The split ran for years and years and showed an ugly anti-Semitism and moral thinness in French society at the top. In its blind reactionism, the Church sided with the Establishment. The Church’s hypocritical and sex-crazed priests were rightly or wrongly seen to be in league with a greedy and presumptuous bourgeoisie and a vacuous and arrogant aristocracy. When that side lost, there would be a high price for the Church.
The other source of hostility was that Catholic orders were beyond the control of the bishops and the Concordat. Their role in education was seen as inimical to equality and fraternity. The French saw something that this country now knows too well – deux jeunesses, two childhoods, splitting society. In the early 1900’s a government led by Freemasons secularised the nation. Most religious orders were dissolved and forced to go abroad. Members of religious orders were prohibited from teaching. Education was the function of the family and government. The response of the Vatican led to a formal separation of Church and State. That secularism, what the French call laicite, has been planted deeply with blood into the French world. The sexual abuse scandal has served to confirm it and the decline of the Church in French life.
It was not until this time that the government of France became settled after the convulsions and blood of the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that killed millions. Then came the two world wars. During the second, many French people collaborated in the Holocaust and trainloads of French Jews were despatched to be murdered en masse. After those wars, the failure of France as an imperial power, came home to haunt it. It was subject to waves of terror for decades, especially because of its conduct in Algeria. Its standing in other Muslem nations was not much better. You will never see a French version of the Commonwealth Games. The 1968 uprising underlined the hollowness of the French constitutional fabric, but the intervening peace may be the longest period of stability since Calvin.
What does this mean for the recent surge in terror in France? Put to one side the religious strife and the waves of terror running through the centuries. Put to one side current reports that the Jewish community has more fear of attack than the Muslem community, and is leaving France in numbers. (The four who were murdered in the supermarket were buried in Israel.) What this history means is at least this. If you are a migrant with religious beliefs and practices and you want a government representing a nation that actively supports organised religion taking part in running the country, then you are in the wrong country in France. Your position is even worse if you are liable to be hurt by its other people exercising their legal rights. If you want the people of your host nation to change their ways and to give up their rights to suit your religious sensitivities, you are suffering from a delusion that is not endearing.
Muslems who want a government that will protect their religious sensitivities have plenty on offer. Saudi Arabia, for example, one of the most backward, decadent and cruel regimes on the planet, and a key ally in our war on terror, is currently administering 1000 lashes in public to a man given ten years in jail for being rude about Islam in a blog. Those who are sour on Charlie Hebdo might bear this chasm in mind.