My cousins in Paris – where I’ve been spending a few days – have been very pleased by the emergence of François Fillon as the presidential candidate for the centre-right (Gaullist) party. Martine has been a supporter of Monsieur Fillon for some time: she admires him as an observant Catholic who is especially concerned about Christians in the Middle East. Brendan thinks Fillon is sensible to plan economic reforms in France, which is known for its bureaucracy and rigid employment laws. And they both say he will be a robust opponent to Marine Le Pen.

In the courteous television debate between Fillon and his immediate rival, Alain Juppé, Fillon seemed a pleasant guy and a family man (he and his Welsh wife, Penelope, have five children) who upholds certain “values”. Those who support him welcome the “Catholic culture” of his values (and his Jesuit education).

Only 10 per cent of the French are church-going, but there is a wider constituency, non-practising or only vaguely Christian, who feel a historic sense of attachment to the faith. In the wake of the martyrdom of Père Hamel, the elderly priest in Rouen who was killed by Islamists as he finished saying Mass, there seems to be a wider support for Fillon’s assertion that Christianity needs to stand against an aggressive Islamism.

Yet Fillon’s “Catholic values” have also elicited hostility, which is likely to increase over the course of the election campaign. The left-wing press has dubbed him a “Catho réac” (“Catholic reactionary”), representing “a France that is retrograde, anti-homosexual, anti-abortion, anti-immigration, anti-trade union”.

In fact, Fillon has been quite careful in his political approach to abortion, saying he cannot personally endorse it, but would not revisit the law which permits it. He has also said he is not opposed to homosexuals or to civil unions, but is against gay adoption – he believes children should have a father and a mother – and he would limit IVF treatment to heterosexual couples. He would also increase child benefit, which is often seen as pro-natalist.

Philippe Portier, from the French science and technical research organisation CNRS, says that “we have under-estimated the weight of Catholic and traditional France. Catholics have lost a third of their numbers over the past 40 years, but those who remain are dynamic believers, deeply rooted, with a strong sense of identity and reluctant to move with changing contemporary moral values.”

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