A fascinating debate is bubbling along among intellectuals in France following M Macron’s election, concerning something the French political system is supposed to be completely free from: religion. In 1905 a law of laïcité formally separated Church and state. Most French people are notionally Catholic, and a significant proportion appear to be observant. The Protestant church in France estimates a following of just over a million people, or 2% of the population.
M Macron grew up in a secular household, and he has several times expressed his commitment to the idea of laïcité: but when he was 12 years old, feeling, as he has put it, the need for some “spirituality”, he asked to be baptised as a Catholic.
However, shortly after his election the leading French philosopher Régis Debray wrote an essay entitled Le Nouveau Pouvoir – The new power – in which he said that, as an underpinning of his proposals to reform France and in particular its economy, M Macron was introducing the values of Protestantism into the country.
The modèle néoprotestant was replacing what M Debray called a matrix of Catholic/secular values that had pertained in France throughout living memory.
If true, this would be turning back the clock in a spectacular fashion.
After the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, when Catholics, distressed at the march of the Reformation, murdered up to 30,000 Protestants, or Huguenots, across the country, the Edict of Nantes formally protected this religious minority, but Louis XIV revoked it in 1685, causing most Huguenots to flee abroad.
Many ended up in England and quickly distinguished themselves, notably in business, leaving a tiny minority in France, mainly in the Cévennes. It was not until after the 1789 revolution that Protestants were accorded the same rights as Catholics. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was also in part triggered by a popular resentment of the comparative wealth of the Huguenots.
It was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther started the Reformation by nailing his 95 theses – his critique of Catholic doctrine – to the door of Wittenberg church. And it is worth remembering, in this month of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Protestantism, just what in the eyes of theologians came to separate Protestants from Catholics, other than the nature of worship.
Chief among these was what philosopher Max Weber more than a century ago called “the Protestant work ethic”.
Luther, Calvin and others developed Protestantism as a creed in which work was a duty and itself a sign of grace; thrift, lack of ostentation and hard work were taken to be a sign of the elect, or those who were predestined for salvation. By contrast, the Catholic church emphasis was on attendance at religious ceremonies and participation in confession.
The Protestant work ethic is not to say that Catholics were lazy or indolent; and there had been a growing mercantilism in many Catholic societies, notably Italy, before the Reformation. But the emphasis Protestantism put on work and saving meant that within a few decades Protestants were becoming noticeably richer than their Catholic peers, and were benefiting from rapid social mobility.
The Reformation and the development of capitalism are inextricably linked: and to this day some of the greatest businesses in France are controlled by Protestant
families – luxury goods company Hermès is one prominent example.
The commercial success of the Huguenots when they left France greatly enriched Britain, Holland and other nations where they settled, and was greatly to France’s detriment. It retarded the development of a French middle class, leading to the huge social gulf between aristocracy and peasantry that would have such bloody results after 1789.
Now, according to the pollster Jérôme Fourquet, writing in Le Figaro, M Macron came to power with huge support from France’s community of Protestants, and is seeking to import their values more widely into the country. Understanding the link between Protestantism and capitalism, this would seem to be the introduction of the dreaded “Anglo-Saxon economics” into France after their wholesale repudiation by François Hollande during his presidency.
It might be wrong to suppose, however, that M Macron is taking Britain as his model: the United States of America, also originally a Protestant foundation and the engine of world capitalism, is seen to be his example, and he worked there for a time as an investment banker.
M Macron was also the pupil of Paul Ricoeur, a Protestant philosopher; and both M Debray and M Fourquet argue that as well as seeking to develop a work ethic, he is hoping to bring in a supposedly Protestant quality of greater transparency to government and to business in France.
What we know so far of the proposed reforms to working practices in France seems designed not to make the French work harder, but to liberate them from the regulatory shackles that prevent them currently from doing so. M Macron is being permissive, not coercive.
It seems most of his country is either behind him, or undisturbed by what he is doing. Although tens of thousands of trades unionists protested on days of action during September – and more are planned for October – the vast majority of the workforce got on with their jobs.
If M Macron is to cut the size of the French state, where 57% of GDP is spent in the public sector, he must also persuade his fellow citizens to rely more on themselves and less on the state. That, too, is said to be a Protestant virtue.
I think M Debray may well be on to something, even if, in a secular state, M Macron had better keep quiet about it.
Column by political commentator and historian Simon Heffer who is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs