The Eldest Daughter of the Church

Recently Le Figaro printed an essay (“Le Christianisme est le coeur de l’Europe: n’oublions pas la leçon de Jean-Paul II !”) by Mateusz Morawiecki, the Prime Minister of Poland, celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Pope Saint John Paul II and the battle of Warsaw, which saved Poland and Europe from invasion by Bolshevik armies. “John Paul II,” Morawiecki wrote, “not only changed the course of history, he also allowed us to understand it anew. History has always been my passion and I must admit that I was greatly affected… by his book Memory and Identity. It is a unique testimony that makes us realize that Christianity is the veritable heart of Europe. And as one often hears that it is the historians who create nations, Memory and Identity shows that the European principle resides in the link between these two ideas. This grand heritage of the memory, which the Pope described with the help of the metaphor of these ‘two lungs,’ invalidated and pulverized the Iron Curtain and the false division of the Continent. It is our duty to make this heritage live, to cultivate the memory of our little countries and our great heroes.” Poland, like Italy and Spain, has been associated historically with Catholicism and the Catholic Church. Still, more than two hundred years after the French Revolution and following five generations of laïcisme, when one thinks of Catholic Europe, one thinks first of France: “la fille aînée de l’Église” (“the eldest daughter of the Church”), as she has been known for centuries.

Around the time Morawiecki’s article appeared, the same paper published long extracts from Déni français: Notre Histoire secrète des relations franco-arabes (French Denial: Our Secret History of French-Arab Relations) by Pierre Vermeren, published last year in Paris by Michel Albin. Vermeren is a noted historian of the contemporary Mahgreb whose latest book analyzes the inability of the French state to deal effectively with the problems created in France by Islam’s substantial presence in the country, and the possible results of the French government’s failure to control it.

Owing to her status as a former colonial power in North Africa, France has a larger Islamic population than any country in Europe, hence a larger Islamic cultural influence also. After the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, the Élysée Palace pretty much left to the government in Algiers the task of overseeing the Muslim religion in France, which is centered upon the Great Mosque of Paris. When the Algerian government proved to be not much good at this, the French government transferred the responsibility to Morocco, which had become the greatest source of funding and of imams to the religion in France, whose Islamization had begun following the liberalization of the Algerian regime with the arrival of Marxist students and Moroccan Islamists in the 1970s and 1980s. Together with the Muslim Brotherhood, established on French soil in 1983 in Lorraine and subsequently around France, they became an influential presence in the country.

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French Muslims were, as they remain, pressed between two influential forces. The first is their country of origin, which considers them subject to Muslim law as overseen and enforced by the foreign government. The second is the proteiform oversight exercised by various Islamic subcultures (the Brotherhood, the Salafists, and so on), all of whom expect to be obeyed from afar. Vermeren explains how when Nicolas Sarkozy, as Minister of the Interior, created the French Council of the Muslim Faith in 2003 in order to establish a public religious authority with which the French state might deal officially with French Islam, he showed his ignorance of the Muslim world and Muslim practice. Sarkozy’s attempt at administrative reorganization in this respect was ignored by Muslim states abroad, which used the Council to their own profit, and by Islamic proselytizers in France. Further, by decreeing in 2008 that the number of elected representatives to the FCMF should correspond with the number of square feet in any mosque controlled by one or another group, he guaranteed competition between international Muslim donors to establish mosques around France, each answerable to its particular Muslim patron. Worse, by trying to institutionalize a religion that has never had an administrative structure, Sarkozy appeared to be trying to identify the “good Muslims” of France, or “le musulman de service”—the tame Muslim whose acquiescence compromises the moral and political victory that French Muslims are intent on winning. With their imaginations petrified in a monarchical and clerical concept of the “Church” (Vermeren argues), Sarkozy and the rest of France’s administrative class were incapable of grasping the notion of a religion lacking an official hierarchy.

Nor could they accommodate the idea of a God who acts by direct intervention in history. For Muslims, Vermeren reminds his readers, Allah is as immanent in the lives of societies as he is in the those of individual men. According to the Muslim understanding of history, the Holocaust was a divine punishment visited upon wicked heretics, the enemies of Allah. The Brotherhood is God’s revenge on arrogant Europeans who stole Muslim territories from the ummah. European colonialism ended because Muslims have repented and become worthy once again of his teaching. Finally, “The time for an offensive [against the infidels] has returned according to [Muslims], whether by the reconquest [of their former territories] by the cradle or by preaching.”

Vermeren claims that up until the adminstration of Jacques Chirac (1995–2007), French presidents had the historical education and experience to understand what and whom they had to deal with in confronting Islam. “For them, France’s relationship to Islam, to the Arab world and to Muslims arose from foreign affairs and was comprehensible through the prism of colonialism; no one was embarrassed by considerations judged useless, rather [they were guided by] what was essential…. Their successors, when they came to power, had no history of relations or former friendships with responsible foreigners, in Africa especially….When counsellors and senior functionaries…spoke with Jacques Chirac of Arab affairs, he knew what to make of the advice he received from them. But when the same people speak to his successors, are they capable of grasping the essential?”

As a result, Vermeren warns, “the new presidents” find themselves in a position of weakness with regard to North African and other Muslim governments (that of the Mahgreb particularly) and to pressure groups that seek to exploit the ignorance of French politicians and administrators, and who are presently able to proceed from influencing the French state to taking a hand in its management on behalf of their personal interests or that of their own countries. Especially dangerous, Vermeren insists, are the ex-patriots—or semi ex-patriots—who have settled in France because political, economic, and social conditions dissuade them from returning to their country of origin, even for retirement. Instead (Vermeren seems to suggest), they remain in their adopted country to remake it in the religious, cultural, and political image of their native home.

Nearly half a century ago, Jean Raspail published Le Camp des saints (The Camp of the Saints), a novel about the invasion of the southern coast of France by a flotilla of over a hundred rusted hulks bearing thousands of Indian untouchables who had embarked from the slums of Calcutta. The book was denounced as racist by Western liberals in France, the rest of Europe, and the United States, who continue to deplore this more or less underground classic which has nevertheless remained in print ever since. Raspail, born in 1925, was a confirmed homme de la droite , an international traveler, adventurer, winner of the French Academy’s Grand Prix for literature—and a devout Catholic, one of whose many novels, L’Anneau du pêcheur (The Ring of the Fisherman), is predicated on the assumption that the wrong man was declared pope when the issue of the Babylonian Captivity was resolved in 1376. In Le Camp des saints, France is conquered by Third World migrants with the sympathy and the active compliance of the agents of French liberalism—the media, the academicians, the bien pensants, and the rest of them. Raspail, as I recall, does not stress the religious aspect of the invasion, which he presents rather as a matter of the impoverished barbaric Third World versus the wealthy First World. Yet what France and rest of the West are facing today is attempted religious conquest from the East and North. Liberal secularists counter that contemporary France, like most of Europe, is Christian in name only, and so—qu’importe? In fact, on nearly annual visits to France over the past 20 years, I have been encouraged by attendance at Sunday Mass in the churches and cathedrals of Paris, as well as in the provinces.

That may be significant, or it may not be. What matters is that the transformation of France into a majority Muslim country, or even a heavily Muslim one, would be a spiritual, cultural, and finally a political blow from which France, and with her Europe, would never recover. (“As France goes, so goes Europe?”) Christianity, of course, would survive, and continue on its way—somehow, somewhere. But it would be a culturally maimed Christianity, cut away from its roots, its youth, and its Époque glorieux that will most likely never be surpassed or rivaled.

On his first visit to their country in 1980, John Paul II politely but pointedly asked the French, “France, fille aînée de l’Église, es-tu fidèle aux promesses de ton baptème?” (“France, eldest daughter of the Church, are you faithful to your baptismal promises?”) How did a French Catholic reply in his heart to that question 40 years ago? How would he reply to it today?

Image: L’Eminence Grise by Jean-Leon Gerome

  • Chilton Williamson, Jr.

    Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior contributor at Crisis. He is the former editor of Chronicles magazine, and his column “Prejudices” appears in The Spectator USA. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review. He blogs at

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