What’s said and unsaid in French pre-visit pope cover

September 10, 2008

Le Canard enchaîné front page, 10 Sept 2008France wouldn’t be France if it didn’t satirise the high and mighty — especially when the target is none other than head of the Roman Catholic Church which once held so much power here.canard-headline-2.gif

With Pope Benedict due to arrive on Friday for his first official visit, the French satirical press is having a field day poking fun at him, Catholics, Church doctrine and anything else to do with religion. Being militantly anti-Catholic is a badge of honour for a certain type of secularist French intellectual, so this week’s editions of their favourite journals were bound to zero in on Benedict. But there’s an interesting twist…

Le Canard enchaîné (picture above), a weekly that mixes satire and investigative journalism, something like Private Eye in Britain, leads its front page with a spoof story claiming Benedict (Benoît XVI in French) has been listed in a controversial classified police registry dubbed Edvige. Pretty tame stuff. Its main scoop — the Canard is a must-read for Parisian political gossip — is the claim that President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to attend just about every important event during Benedict’s stay in France. Like many other anonymously sourced Canard scoops, this may or may not be true. Sounds likely, though…

Headline: “God doesn’t exist!” Pope: “I suspected that!”/Charlie Hebdo cover, 10 Sept 2008The other satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, loves to provoke with much cruder fare. This is the magazine that reprinted the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad and was taken to court by French Muslims for defamation (it won easily, because free speech was bound to trump the Muslims’ charges of blasphemy in court). This week’s Numéro Spécial Pape (Special Pope Edition) won’t disappoint its readers. It has a long editorial denouncing the Church, cartoons satirising Sarkozy for speaking positively about religion and a list of planned anti-pope petitions and protests (all a safe distance from any papal events). There are also pages of polemical cartoons, some of them downright pornographic and insulting. The cover (at right) was the tamest of them all.

The most interesting aspect of this criticism, though, is what the French like to call the “non-dit” — the “unsaid”. There is much less snide criticism in the media now than there used to be. Just before the 1997 World Youth Day (WYD) in Paris, the media poured cold water on the idea and made fun of the Catholic Church and the ailing Pope John Paul. Commentators announced in advance that it would be a flop. In the end, it was a stunning success. The final Mass at Longchamp racetrack drew over a million Catholics, twice as many as expected.

“There was a change with the 1997 WYD. Catholics were proud to turn out in numbers,” explained Frédéric Lenoir, editor-in-chief of the bimonthly Le Monde des Religions. “All of a sudden, that gave the media — and French society in general — the feeling that religion was important now and one had to reckon with it. Contrary to what the sociologists had been saying for years, it wasn’t a phenomenon that was disappearing. To the contrary, it was a phenomenon that had never disappeared, it had just gone underground a bit.”


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I am French and Catholic and I have felt much closer to my faith since the 1997 WYD.

There is a shift in French people’s attitude towards religion. 20 years ago when you discussed politics, people would listen. When you discussed religion, people would laugh.

Now it’s exactly the contrary. Religion is coming back in the public sphere to fill the moral vacuum left by secular ideologies.

Posted by Luc Bomel | Report as abusive

Thanks for posting this I shall have to try and get hold of the Canard on my way back to France after a long weekend in Bern.
I actually wonder whether laicité hasn’t become a bit of a religion in itself in France

Posted by jane | Report as abusive

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