Is France Getting Religion?

In the immigrant suburbs of Paris, secularism is on the wane.

A stained-glass window in the Basilica of St. Denis, which is considered the first cathedral built in the Gothic style

PARIS—If France is a fortress of secularism, you wouldn’t know it from a Sunday morning visit to St. Denis. Jehovah’s Witnesses set up camp each week near the frenetic outdoor market. Muslims wear headscarves and frequent the halal butchers. Back in November, posters advertising end-of-Ramadan celebrations vied for wall space with posters touting Christian preachers on tour. And presiding over this Parisian suburb, which was once known as a bastion of communism, is the Basilica of St. Denis. As the first Gothic cathedral ever built, it’s a monument to divinely inspired creativity.

A Jehovah’s Witness talks to local residents in St. Denis

When I visited in January, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had set out a board covered with signs in French and Arabic. Their question of the day, printed in Arabic, read, “Is the cross a Christian symbol?” A blond Frenchman was holding an animated Arabic-language discussion about God with two passersby. His colleague Georgette Daguerre told me, “We’re like the apostles in the first century. We go to the market to talk to people about Jesus.” It’s a remarkable market: multilingual and multi-ethnic, selling everything from ladies underwear to lunch, with more than 300 stalls sprawled between a medieval architectural gem and the sharp concrete angles of a futuristic town center.

A 10-minute walk from the market is the Evangelical Assembly of the Pentecost. While the flocks drawn to the famous basilica these days are mainly tourists ogling the stained-glass rosettes, this Pentecostal church draws more than 400 worshippers every Sunday to premises that couldn’t be more different. Stark white on the inside, the church occupies the ground floor of a plain brick apartment block.

Pentecostalism, a wing of Protestant Christianity that emphasizes spirituality, is the fastest-growing faith in the world. Born in a Topeka, Kan., Bible college in 1901, it now numbers 520 million people worldwide, with the greatest numbers in Africa and South America.

Pentecostalism is growing in France, too, turning Protestantism, historically the embattled religion in a Catholic society, into a burgeoning faith. That still puts Protestants at only 2.2 percent of the over-18 population, according to a new study commissioned by the Protestant weekly Réforme—a little larger than the Jewish population but smaller than the Muslim community, which makes up between 5 percent and 10 percent of the French population.

Unlike most of the 64.3 percent of French citizens who still identify with Catholicism, the new Protestants are vigorous worshippers. Sébastien Fath, a sociologist who has written extensively on Protestantism in France, noted in a recent paper that while accelerated secularization has marked French society since the 1960s, evangelicals (who here are mostly Pentecostal) seem to have escaped the trend. “Whereas the Catholic Church has had to close seminaries, Evangelical Protestants … had to answer increased demand for training,” he wrote.

With subsets of Protestantism and Islam its two growing religious forces, France mirrors the larger world. And the expansion in both cases is a direct result of the larger world coming to France.

Worshippers at the Evangelical Assembly of the Pentecost in St. Denis, a suburb of Paris

“The arrival of people of color is a major factor,” said Christian Capron, pastor of the Evangelical Assembly of the Pentecost. He is a white Frenchman who grew up in a Pentecostal family and worked as a missionary in Eastern Europe before taking the helm at St. Denis in 1971. “Without them we wouldn’t have the same growth.” They come from French possessions in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, from Haiti, and in large numbers from Africa, Capron said. Most of his congregation is black. On my Sunday morning visit, I meet a woman from Gabon whose husband is from Madagascar. (The growth of evangelical Christianity in France has also been aided by American missionaries.)

One could get the impression, in the immigrant suburbs that ring Paris, that France’s famous secularism is on the wane. One very popular politician seems to think so. Nicolas Sarkozy, chief of President Jacques Chirac’s UMP party, has made a bid to bring religion and state a little closer together.

Last fall Sarkozy generated huge media attention with the publication of his book La Republique, les religions, l’esperance (The Republic, Religions, Hope), in which he talked about his own Catholic faith and called for a greater role for religion in public life.

He has also argued for amending France’s law separating church and state, which turns 100 this year. The 1905 law bars any state funding of religious groups and is the cornerstone of French secularism. Amending it would allow for the financing of mosques. Unlike churches and synagogues, mosques weren’t around to be funded before 1905, and so Islam has wound up relatively shortchanged in terms of real estate. The idea behind helping mosques is that doing so would bring Muslims more into the mainstream, thus countering extremism.

But France is not getting religion, at least not yet. So far, Sarkozy’s foray into American-style public religiosity has gone over like a lead balloon. Whatever the French may do on their weekends, there has been no show of support for relaxing the state’s strict secularism. The new ban on religious symbols in public schools is, on the whole, popular. And President Chirac has reiterated his support for the 1905 law numerous times.

Pastor Christian Capron at the Evangelical Assembly of the Pentecost in St. Denis

Moreover, both Capron, the pastor, and Fath, the sociologist, note that the French tend to see religions outside of the mainstream as “sects,” and thus suspect. This extends to official policy: A parliamentary committee has indexed 173 sects to keep an eye on, among them Pentecostal churches.

So, the French state has drawn its line in the sand once again in a clash of civilizations that is not between West and East, or between Judeo-Christian culture and Islam, but between secularists and believers. The problem is, drawing a line in the sand against religion looks increasingly like drawing a line in the sand against immigrants. France has never done a particularly good job of integrating new arrivals, which is why the cultural trends in the halo of suburbs just outside Paris’ périphérique can look so different from those in the Seventh Arrondissement, where museums and government ministries dot the Left Bank.

After the Sunday service, as the milling crowd outside the church resolves itself into carpools, a stranger named Noura comes up and kisses me on both cheeks. She says she found Jesus seven years ago after being brought up in an Arab Muslim home. “I was looking for God,” she explains. “I was knocking on his door.”

The drafters of the 1905 law were convinced that religion had no future. “They had just come out of a 19th century … that predicted the death of God. The republicans thought the churches were going to empty,” said historian Emile Poulat, recently interviewed in the newsweekly Valeurs Actuelles. Indeed, some of the drafters thought that with state funding pulled, religion would collapse.

That collapse has yet to take place. Sarkozy, who has been praised for his fresh thinking on crime and the economy, may yet prove prescient on religion, too. As the global south heads north in a big way, it brings its faith. The state can bar religion from public life, but the crowd knocking on the door is only going to grow.