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In secular France, can faith carry the election?

Do France’s Catholics, Muslim and Jews choose their president depending on their faith? A sociologist tells FRANCE 24 why Catholics flock to conservative Nicolas Sarkozy while Muslims and Jews favour Socialist François Hollande.


In staunchly secular France, the common assumption is that religion is best kept out of politics. Analysts tend to look to age, profession or gender when trying to gauge voter behaviour. But according to sociologists, religion plays a key part when it comes to casting a ballot. Claude Dargent, a researcher at Sciences Po’s Cevipof institute, argues that religion is more influential in voters’ decisions than social class.

At 57.2%, Catholics make up the majority of voters in France. Muslims (5%) form the second biggest religious group, followed by Protestants (2%) and Jews (0.6%). Some 30% of French voters describe themselves as having “no religion”.

Claude Dargent specialises in research on French voting patterns and has published reports on both Muslim and Catholic voter behaviour ahead of next month's presidential election.

FRANCE 24: The Muslim electorate has expanded massively in the past decade. How do French Muslims tend to vote?

Claude Dargent: In 1997, Muslim voters in France made up only 0.7% of voters, whereas in 2007 [at the last presidential election] they had reached around 5%. This is because of the increasing numbers of Muslims on the electoral roll, most of them having been born into Muslim families of foreign origin.

French Muslims are largely left-leaning – 95% of them voted for [Socialist candidate] Ségolène Royal in the first round of the 2007 presidential election, while only 5% voted for [conservative, UMP party] Nicolas Sarkozy.

Around 75% of French Muslims are working class, but the French working class as a whole does not vote in the same way. In fact, they span left, right and far-right circles. Because of this comparison, we can deduce that French Muslims tend to vote left-wing because of their membership of a religious group rather than their social class.

F24: What about the Catholic vote?

C.D.: Practicing Catholics are five to six times more likely to vote right-wing than those who describe themselves as “without religion”. In the first round of the 2007 election, some 49% of Catholics voted for Nicolas Sarkozy, against only 12% for Ségolène Royal. According to a January survey carried out by TNS-Sofrès for [Catholic weekly] Le Pèlerin, 50% of Catholics plan to vote for Sarkozy this time round while just 13% will support [Socialist candidate] François Hollande.

Interestingly, Catholics have not been won over by the far right. In 2007, [former National Front leader] Jean-Marie Le Pen experienced his lowest score among French Catholics.
[Centrist candidate] François Bayrou also rates poorly among Catholics, at just 14%, despite belonging to the Christian Democrat family.

F24: And Jewish voters?

C.D.: It’s very difficult to assess the behaviour of Jewish voters because they make up less than 1% of the electorate, meaning that the margin for error is a potential game-changer. We do know however that French Jews are more likely to vote left than right. Although in 2007 some of them seem to have voted for Nicolas Sarkozy. But it’s difficult to know why because their vote is clouded by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

F24: Do Protestants follow the same pattern as fellow Christians?

C.D.: Historically, Protestants have tended to side with the left. But this tendency has weakened in recent years, with some rallying behind Sarkozy in the last election. According to surveys, those Protestants who did vote for him soon regretted it, particularly after the infamous ‘Fouquet’s’ episode [when Sarkozy celebrated his 2007 victory at an extravagant restaurant, earning the nickname ‘bling-bling president'].

F24: Will religion play a part in the 2012 election?

C.D.: The religious vote is grounded in values, which explains why it varies remarkably little. It is not new to France, the only difference now being that Islam has made it a focal issue.

The "religious question" was already being discussed in 1905 when church and state were separated. By the mid-20th century, pioneer electoral sociologist André Siegfried claimed that “religion is the central question for French voters”.

I think little will change in this election. We will still see the Catholic/right, Muslim/left divide, and the Protestants will probably find a suitable candidate in François Hollande.

F24: Could Sarkozy suffer?

C.D.: The religious question has remained an ongoing theme during Sarkozy’s five-year term.

The nationwide debates he promoted on secularism and national identity played out badly for Muslims and will likely affect their choice in the polling booth. On the other hand, Sarkozy appeased religious conservatives when he said in 2007 that "the teacher will never replace the priest or the pastor" during a speech against gay marriage.

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All photos: Ségolène Allamandou/ FRANCE 24.

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