Régis Debray, writer, thinker and activist, turns a spotlight, in his latest book, “Le Nouveau Pouvoir” (The New Power), on last May’s sweeping election victory by Emmanuel Macron in France.

‘Neo-Protestant’ challenge seen in France’s political upheaval

PARIS (RNS) — In France’s highly secularized society, anyone who talks about religion and politics risks being written off as a closet demagogue, a Catholic traditionalist or a potential radical Islamist. Officially, the twain should never meet.

Régis Debray, a leading figure among the public intellectuals who dominate French op-ed pages and late-night talk shows, has bucked the trend by studying the religious roots of current affairs that other commentators regularly overlook.

If it weren’t for his lifelong radical credentials — onetime ally of Fidel Castro, comrade of Che Guevara, still on the far left at 77 — and support for France’s official secularism, Debray might just be ignored. But that ideological pedigree, plus a bit of mellowing with age, has made him into an original observer of the French political scene.

His latest book, “Le Nouveau Pouvoir” (The New Power), turns this spotlight on last May’s sweeping election victory by Emmanuel Macron, the new 39-year-old president who came from near obscurity to push the polarized old political parties aside and bring in a centrist government unimaginable only a year ago.

While others pored over opinion polls and political strategies to analyze Macron’s sweeping victory — he won the presidency with 66 percent of the vote and his start-from-scratch party took 61 percent of the seats in the National Assembly — Debray stepped back to look for the cultural roots of the political upheaval.

What he found was a “neo-Protestant” challenge to France’s traditional “Catholic/secular” political culture, transforming politics from behind-the-scenes battling among elites to more open and transparent governance.

Macron, a former investment banker who had never before run for office, wants to push through market-friendly economic reforms, shake up the over-regulated labor market and blur the country’s traditional left-right ideological split. If Macron — a Catholic who speaks little of religion — succeeds, this could amount to a major cultural shift in the way France is governed.

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For Debray, that approach echoes some economic positions of the U.S. Republican Party and of the evangelical “neo-Protestants” who support it.

Macron’s way of stressing youthful dynamism over decades-long experience, projecting his image over social media and embracing globalization also seems very American, Debray says, pointedly adding the U.S. is a traditionally Protestant society.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the Elysee Palace during Prefects Reunion in Paris on Sept. 5, 2017. Photo by Etienne Laurent, Pool via AP

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On top of that, this political sea change has come as the growing numbers of evangelicals in France — mostly immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa — have been making what Debray calls their “theology light and tacky services” the majority expression of faith among France’s small Protestant minority.

French Protestants make up only two percent of the population. Lutherans and Calvinists, respected by the Catholic majority as hardworking and honest, are in numerical decline while immigration is boosting the evangelical ranks.

"The halo of a neo-Protestantism made in USA grows year by year in our behaviour and in our suburbs," he writes, referring to the poor outskirts of French cities where many immigrants live. France can hardly avoid “this theo-populist wave sweeping from Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa, from Central Asia to the Far East.”

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With his usual flourish, Debray summarizes his thesis with the motto: “Forget Florence and advance toward Stockholm.”

In other words, the political intrigue described by Niccolo Machiavelli in 16th-century Catholic Florence is outdated, and French politicians now have to be more like the opposition leader in traditionally Lutheran Sweden who resigned after using her official credit card for personal purchases including chocolate and diapers for her children.

Debray, who calls himself a Catholic atheist, bases his analysis on a mixture of Calvinist views of work, as described by sociologist Max Weber in his book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” and his view of evangelicalism as a “do-it-yourself” religion with wide popular appeal.

France's dwindling Catholic Church, which now has only 10 percent of the priests it had a century ago, faces rising competition from evangelical groups that open one new church every 10 days.

Olivier Abel, a leading Protestant philosopher, said Debray overestimated the American factor in the spread of evangelicalism, which Abel called a “light, portable religion” that appealed to “displaced, uprooted and insecure populations” in many parts of the globe.

Debray’s view of Protestantism as highly rational and individualist was a cliche, Abel told the Paris daily Le Monde, and the spread of evangelicalism in France owed more to globalization than any U.S. influence.

But the book was "a useful warning” about a new religious style that is gaining ground in Europe without many Europeans noticing it, he said.

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“There is a profound cultural gulf between European Protestantism and the American and globalized Protestantism that is coming at us from the former colonies in Africa and Latin America, even China,” Abel said.

"We talk a lot about Islam, but there is a galloping neo-Protestantism in the suburbs,” he said. “This neo-Protestant wave could submerge our old European culture."

Abel said this trend was bound to continue with further African immigration, especially from sub-Saharan countries like the French-speaking Democratic Republic of Congo where Protestants now make up about 20 percent of the population. "The Africa that is coming will be an Africa that is massively neo-Protestant,” he said.

(Tom Heneghan is a correspondent based in Paris)


  1. France never really got the notion of religious freedom. Their version of “secularism” was always a bit skewed to favor established Christian (Catholic) interests and to attack minority religious practice and belief. Really it amounts to anti-clericism.

    The French profess to a strict (but never actual) separation of church and state, but they drop the ball on another element of religious freedom. Free exercise of religion. Its one thing to have a government which is neutral to entanglement of any given faith. But without protection of the exercise of all religious faiths, it just comes off as hostility to minority beliefs.

  2. Protestantism could be increasing in France – albeit from a small base – and it’s true that Protestantism has increased in Latin America, but in Australia and New Zealand, Protestantism appears to have declined faster than Catholicism.

    The world seems to become more multi-faith and more secular as the years go on.

  3. It isn’t uncommon for attempts at corrective changes to go too far in the other direction. Hopefully that will not be the case with what Macron tries to do.

    It isn’t regulations per se that help control the ever reaching tentacles of business onto everyday life, it is representation. Both business owners, workers, customers and all other stakeholders must be consulted when writing regulations. If Macron leaves out significant groups, then his attempt to rewrite or prune regulations will produce their own problems that must be corrected.

    IF I was Macron, I wouldn’t listen to Republican-leaning Protestants, I would look at Germany and it employment of codetermination.

  4. Australia has seen a decline in traditional Protestantism. This leaves a vacuum for American style Evangelism to take root and grow. In fact Australia has given birth to a huge Evangelical Protestant church, Hillsong. Fortunately–so far–Hillsong id not like US evangelists in many ways. It uses the same worship style-concert like services with great use of technology–but it avoids politics, and emphasizes love and Gospel based preaching. It avoids hot button issues, such as homosexuality, by saying nothing against or for homosexuals Hillsong is experiencing explosive growth worldwide, including in secular Britain. The boring Catholic Mass cannot compete with concert services and mass feel good gatherings. Hillsong offers a cleaned up 60’s experince. US preachers offer the same great concert like services but add preaching that emphasizes, hostility, politics, and the drive to install their version f Christianity as America’s official religion.


    Hear that, Tom Heneghan? You and these French “Catholic atheist” and “Protestant philosopher” friends of yours have made me shout from rooftops the good news for France that my African brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus have become! Such good news, these 3 takeaways from your article – thank you!

    (1) GOD IS STILL REDESIGNING PLANET EARTH THROUGH JESUS – “Evangelicalism … [is] appeal[ing] to ‘displaced, uprooted and insecure populations’ in many parts of the globe … France can hardly avoid ‘this theo-populist wave sweeping from Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa, from Central Asia to the Far East.’ … The spread of evangelicalism in France owed more to globalization than any U.S. influence.” Praise God, Jesus saves!

    (2) GOD LOVES AFRICANS BECAUSE OF JESUS – “The Africa that is coming [to France] will be an Africa that is massively neo-Protestant … Immigration is boosting the evangelical ranks. … Mostly immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa – have been making … their ‘theology’ … the majority expression of faith among France’s small Protestant minority.” Praise God, Jesus saves!

    (3) GOD IS STILL USING JESUS TO TRANSFORM FRENCH PEOPLE – “A new religious style … is gaining ground in Europe without many Europeans noticing it … France’s … evangelical groups … open one new church every 10 days.” That means: “A galloping neo-Protestantism in the suburbs” as a cultural “wave could submerge our old European culture. … A profound cultural gulf between European Protestantism and” – through immigration – “the … globalized Protestantism … is coming at [the French] from the former colonies in Africa and Latin America, even China”. Praise God, Jesus saves!

    (Source: Tom Heneghan, “‘Neo-Protestant’ challenge seen in France’s political upheaval”, Religion News Service, September 12, 2017)

  6. Article makes clear French Neo-Protestantism is influenced not by American Evangelicalism – yaay! – but just by African immigrants and their brand of Bible Christianity – good on them!

  7. Them Africans – you like? Under the radar changes through those immigrants. Wonderful, simply wonderful.

  8. Hillsong certainly is known for attracting large numbers, but this doesn’t seem to have affected the overall statistics. For example, Pentecostals were 1.1% of the total in both 2011 and 2016 censuses, while Christian (undefined) increased from 2.2% in 2011 to 2.6% in 2016. (Most other Christian groups registered a decline.) See http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/[email protected]/mediareleasesbyReleaseDate/7E65A144540551D7CA258148000E2B85?OpenDocument
    As the Wikipedia article describes Hillsong as a Pentecostal church I guess this puts it in the group that is simply holding its own. Also it is notable that the church has stated a clear position on the same sex marriage survey – no. See http://www.gospelherald.com/articles/71324/20170901/hillsongs-brian-houston-australia-same-sex-marriage-vote-gods-word.htm

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