Play in Paris draws wrath of far-right Catholic groups

4 min

Catholic fundamentalists have been gathering outside a Parisian theatre, at one point barging in, to protest against a play featuring the face of Christ allegedly covered with fake excrement.


Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have been hot topics in French society over the years, but these days, it’s anti-Christian sentiment that’s making front-page news.

For the past week, throngs of Catholic fundamentalists have been brandishing crosses, chanting in Latin, and dropping to their knees in prayer outside a popular Parisian theatre to protest against a play featuring the face of Christ allegedly covered with fake excrement.

The work in question, Italian Romeo Castellucci’s “On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God”, is about an incontinent man being cared for by his son, and has been showing at the Theatre de la Ville (near the Notre Dame Cathedral).

Outraged by what they consider blasphemy and “Christianophobia”, over a thousand protesters (and up to 5,000, according to protest organisers) gathered on Saturday in front of the theatre, hurling eggs and oil at the building and theatre-goers entering it. Two days earlier, police arrested 20 people for breaking into a performance of the play and planting stink bombs.

Protests backed by far-right movements

The protests are supported by far-right fringe party Renouveau français (which translates into “French renewal”), which defines itself as nationalistic and Catholic, has a history of anti-gay activism, and has been known to draw young, well-off militants to its cause. The campaign against Castellucci’s play has also been endorsed by Bruno Gollnisch, a prominent member of France’s main far-right party, the National Front.

But perhaps the main driving force behind the protests is the Institut Civitas, a conservative Catholic movement affiliated with the far right whose stated purpose is to “restore the pre-eminence of Jesus Christ in society”. In April, the movement was behind protests against New York artist Andres Serrano’s photograph “Immersion Piss Christ” (which shows a crucifix in a glass of the artist’s urine) in the southern city of Avignon.

Now the group is backing the anti-Castellucci protesters, arguing that his play is discriminatory. “It's insulting at the end of a scatological play to sully the portrait of Christ by making people believe that it's fecal matter that has dirtied it, wounding so many believers,” the Insitut Civitas said on its Web site.

Several French artists, including actress Juliette Binoche and filmmaker Barbet Schroeder, have leaped to Castellucci’s defence, cosigning an indignant letter titled “Theatre against Fascism” in daily newspaper Le Monde. “The protesters’ behaviour amounts to fanaticism, that enemy of enlightenment and freedom, against which, in glorious times, France has so successfully fought,” the letter read.

Meanwhile, the association of French Roman Catholic bishops on Tuesday moved to distance itself from the more extreme protesters, denouncing “the violence perpetrated during recent performances” of the play and specifying that “France's Roman Catholic Church is neither fundamentalist nor obscurantist (opposed to enlightenment)”.

As of November 2, the play will move to the “104”, a sprawling cultural centre in Paris’s diverse 19th district – and Alain Escada, the Institut Civitas’s secretary general, has called for the protests to move with it. But the neighbourhood is home to several active left-wing associations, and far-right Catholic protesters will likely draw their ire.

As for the author himself, Castellucci has insisted that the substance coating Renaissance painter Antonello da Messina’s giant portrait of Christ that hangs toward the back of the stage is not, in fact, excrement. Via a statement released by the Theatre de la Ville on October 22, Castellucci called the allegation “false”, adding “I find this idea horrible”.

After “On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God” finishes its run, protesters are expected to turn their attention to another play: Rodrigo Garcia’s “Golgota Picnic”, in which Christ is compared to a terrorist and is covered in bills of money at the scene of his crucifixion, kicks off on December 8 at the Theatre du Rond-Point.

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