Protestants look to meeting with French president to strengthen social cohesion
By Stephen Brown*
French President François Hollande praised Protestant churches and organizations for their work in areas such as health, social inclusion and support for refugees and migrants during a meeting on 13 April at the presidential Elysée Palace with 300 Protestant leaders and representatives.
“You are present where others are absent,” Hollande told the representatives of churches, foundations, associations and institutions belonging to the Protestant Federation of France (FPF) and the Federation of Protestant Solidarity (FEP).
The French president also highlighted actions leading up to the United Nations climate conference in Paris in December 2015, “where we shared the same values.”
There are no official religious statistics for France but Protestants have been estimated at about 2 percent of the country’s 64 million people, compared to 65 percent who describe themselves as Catholic and 6 percent Muslim.
In his speech, President Hollande defended the action of his government in response to questions from five young people from organizations belonging to the FPF and FEP on refugees, youth unemployment, people on the streets, those with disabilities and the place of religion in society.
The FPF president, Pastor François Clavairoly, in an address opening the meeting, described it as “an important milestone along the path we walk together in society for social cohesion, democratic life, search for direction, and service to our contemporaries, especially the poorest, the most vulnerable, excluded and most powerless.”
It is the first such large-scale meeting of Protestants with the French president and comes at a time of debate in France about the place of religion in society and how tightly to draw the limits of the country’s strict separation of religion and state, called “laicité” (secularity).
Clavairoly warned against “a narrow ‘laicité’ which looks upon its citizens in a completely abstract way, without taking any account of culture, religion or human depth.”
Responding, President Hollande described ‘laicité’ “ as the freedom given to each person to practice the religion of their choice, on the condition that they don’t impose it on others. It also allows each person not to be a believer.”
Referring to the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 that left 130 people dead, Hollande underlined the role of religious leaders in promoting a message of social cohesion.
“We all live in the same community, with the same rules. We live with the conviction that no religion can impose itself on others,” said the French president.
The date chosen for the meeting at the Elysée Palace – 13 April – marked the anniversary of the Edict of Nantes signed in 1598 by King Henri IV. This granted a degree of toleration to Protestants and put a temporary end to the French wars of religion between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Earlier in the day, the city of Paris commemorated the Protestant victims of one of the most notorious atrocities of the French religious wars, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572.
About 4,000 Protestants were killed during three days of mob violence in the French capital after King Charles IX authorized the assassination of Protestant leaders on 24 August, St Bartholomew’s Day. It was followed by killings throughout France of a further 10,000 Protestants.
Unveiling a plaque to commemorate the victims, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, described the massacre as a warning against stigmatizing and repressing minorities which can lead to an “uncontrollable dynamic of extermination.”
In his address at the ceremony, FPF President Clavairoly welcomed the new official memorial to those killed in the massacre.
The commemoration was an injunction, he said, to work for a “society that is willing to deal with and confront its differences and contradictions, not in violence but in debate and discussion,”
The massacre, Clavairoly said, was “the tragic symbol of a stalemate in which a whole country gets locked and is unable to resolve matters except through what can be called a state crime or violence of a terrifying intensity that in the end becomes reciprocal.”
The FPF gathers about 30 churches and 80 associations; the FEP groups 360 organizations that taken together manage 1,000 social service institutions and services with a total of 28,000 staff and volunteers.
*Stephen Brown is a freelance journalist based in France