"France is Christian and should remain so"
‘I’m disgusted by having to present a work of art under such tight security’ : the words of Argentine playwright Rodrigo Garcia on the Paris opening night of his new play Golgotha Picnic. The theatre is blocked off by armed police, with no-one who doesn’t have a ticket being allowed near Why? Because a right-wing Catholic group says the play is blasphemous.
France’s theatres and art galleries have had to confront a new phenomenon in recent months; an increasingly vocal, articulate and radicalised Catholic movement not afraid to attack work they object to. The works they’ve been targeting aren’t necessarily deliberately offensive.
The two latest plays to fall foul of this group have been on the concept of the face of the son of God by the Italian Romeo Castellucci, in which a painting of Christ watches over events and eventually comes to life, described by Liberation as ‘a philosphical reflection on the place of God in society’ and Golgotha Picnic, which while it does feature a nude pianist playing Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, and calls Jesus ‘the first demagogue’, was also described by reviewers as ‘a poetic meditation that could almost be called religious’.
Full disclosure: I haven’t seen either work, but it doesn’t sound like either is exactly Jerry Springer The Musical. Some of the demonstrators aren’t afraid of taking fairly drastic action either; an art gallery in Avignon suffered hundreds of thousands of euros worth of damage when protesters broke into it overnight and vandalised several works, including the one they objected to, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of the artist’s urine.
While you might expect this sort of reaction if you were to put any of these plays on in middle America, it’s pretty surprising in France, where most people set great store by secularism. This is a country where Church and state were officially separated in 1905, by a law that bans religious instruction in public schools. That’s provided the justification for banning the burqa, a move often seen as racist in the English-speaking world, but extremely popular in France, where people are as likely to defend it on the ground that one shouldn’t display religious belief in public as on the grounds of women’s rights.
Ifind this seemingly very un-French religious movement intriguing enough that I went along to a demonstration they held today by the Theatre du Rond-Point in central Paris, where Golgotha Picnic is currently being staged. About a thousand people marched with banners proclaiming ‘France is Catholic and should remain so’, crucifixes, icons and an enormous cross. They were overwhelmingly young, even teenagers, and when I asked them why they were protesting none of them came up with a specific objection to this particular play, saying they had been told by Church leaders it was blasphemous, but admitting they didn’t actually know why.
They did say that they were angry about a general sentiment of Christianophobia in French society, that they felt talking about faith has become taboo, and that religious believers are discriminated against. It seems hard to explain why a clearly quite large group of people should feel this so strongly; the French state might seem militant about its secularism when it comes to Islam, but is also happy to provide public funding for church projects that ‘preserve France’s cultural heritage’ meaning the current government is implicitly agreeing with the demonstrators’ belief that France’s cultural heritage is a Catholic one. That’s not the way protest organisers Civitas see things, though, arguing that the public subsidy the Theatre du Rond-Point receives is proof of an anti-Catholic agenda in government.
The established Catholic Church hasn’t quite known how to react to this new movement; Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, head of the French Catholic Church, first opposed the protesters, and then said he would be leading a prayer meeting against Golgotha Picnic. I’m not sure this will go down well with public opinion, which sees Civitas as at best eccentric and at worst close to the far-right Front National. Having met the protesters today, I’m still not sure I understand what’s suddenly sparked this outburst of religious feeling now, but I do think it shows that, as believers become more and more of a minority in France, extremist elements are gaining prominence. I’m not at all sure it’s an intelligent move for the established Church to go along with them; surely it can only marginalise the Church further.