In the first round, French Catholics did not vote for either Macron or Le Pen. They face a dilemma at the ballot box this Sunday

‘La peste ou le choléra’: the plague or cholera. This expression perfectly captures the dilemma of French Catholics at the ballot box this Sunday. In the second round of the presidential election, they must choose between Emmanuel Macron, the candidate of the centre-left party En Marche!, and Marine Le Pen, the right-wing populist candidate.

In the first round, the majority of Catholics did not vote for either Macron or Le Pen. According to the pollster Ifop, 46 per cent of practising Catholics supported François Fillon. In spite of the expenses scandal that engulfed him, the former prime minister was backed by many Catholic activists, mostly on account of his social conservatism. Furthermore, 12 per cent of churchgoers voted for the far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose appeal to social justice attracted Christians, despite his plan to legalise euthanasia.

Neither candidate in the second round meets all the discernment criteria proposed by the French Church, of course. Le Pen, who has temporarily stepped down as head of the Front National, departs from the bishops with her anti-immigration and anti-European Union position and Macron with his social liberalism and radical free-market economics. Catholics are very divided over the relative weight of these matters. The two candidates both have a difficult relationship with Christianity. Macron, a technocrat and former finance minister under outgoing president François Hollande, both intrigues and worries Catholics.

Born into a secularised family in 1977, he was baptised at his own request at 12, when he entered the College de la Providence in Amiens. At this Jesuit-run establishment, he met his French teacher Brigitte Auziere, who later became his wife. He was just 15 and she was 39. Recalling those years, Macron told the Catholic weekly Famille Chrétienne: “I was in touch with the Catholic faith in its intellectual dimension, sometimes more than in its strictly spiritual dimension. I was fascinated by this mixture of intelligence and faith.’’

Since then, the candidate has taken inspiration from what might be called a secularised Christianity, defending migrants and the European Union with the technique of a preacher. “I do not deny the Christic dimension,’’ the former Jesuit pupil has said, acknowledging that he sometimes strikes preacher-like poses during his stump speeches, with his palms open and arms outstretched.

But Macron is also the candidate of a radical social liberalism. He is in favour of retaining same-sex marriage and extending IVF to lesbian couples. He is, however, opposed to legalising surrogacy. Unlike in Britain, this practice is forbidden in France and highly criticised, both by conservative Catholics and, intriguingly, the far left (which sees it as a commodification of women’s bodies). The rejection of surrogacy played a major role in mobilising protesters against gay marriage in 2013. Yet, like the previous Socialist government, Macron wants to continue to recognise the births of children born to surrogate mothers abroad.

In contrast, the Front National is trying to appeal to Catholic voters with socially conservative positions. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the niece of Marine, plays a vital role here. The 27-year-old MP attended the protests against same-sex marriage. Openly Catholic, she is in touch with the young Christian generation. She tirelessly declares that the party will repeal gay marriage. “It is a promise that will be held, I will vouch for it,’’ she said last Sunday.

Four years after the ultimately unsuccessful Manif Pour Tous campaign against gay marriage, many Catholics still feel humiliated by the Socialist government. As Macron seems to be the successor of François Hollande, many of them want to take revenge by voting for Le Pen. But the Front National has taken a hardline view of laïcité, the state ethos of secularism. Le Pen wants to ban all religious symbols – crosses, kippahs and veils – from the public square. The twice-divorced leader has said that she was hurt by the attitude of Catholics towards her. She has also criticised Pope Francis’s appeal to welcome migrants, denouncing it as “foreign interference’’ in French affairs.

Catholics are, of course, uncomfortable with all this. Aside from gay marriage, the National Front has gained support largely thanks to the migrant crisis and terror attacks. But many of the faithful want to avoid a clash with Islam. In 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, contested the second round of the presidential election against Jacques Chirac, the Church was fiercely opposed to the Front National. Today it is different. The French bishops’ conference offered voters general advice but no voting instructions.

The faithful are called to obey their conscience. It is in listening to God that we will be able to vote, and above all to rebuild, a Christian France regardless of who the new president will be.

Pierre Jova works for Famille Chrétienne.

This article first appeared in the May 5 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here