Ten days before Notre Dame was engulfed by flames, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán was busy launching his Fidesz party’s EU election campaign with an excited speech stating that what was at stake in next month’s Europe-wide vote was nothing less than “our Christian civilisation”.
This week, as I watched the images of the cathedral blaze, I wondered how long it would take for Orbán, the self-proclaimed defender of “Christian Europe”, or other national populists, to try to capitalise on this tragedy in their effort to redraw the European Union along the lines of their white, ethnocentric religious vision.
Orbán has vowed to turn the upcoming EU elections into a battle against liberals of the “1968 generation”, as well as against immigration. He is notorious for his claims about the “Brussels bubble” supposedly teaming up with philanthropist financier George Soros to “import millions” of Muslim migrants as part of a plot to transform the continent’s demographics and dilute nation states. The fact that the Notre Dame fire was an accident and had nothing to do with migrants or Muslims did not prevent rightwing populists trying to benefit from the swirl of emotions.
Hungary’s leader has so far steered clear of explicitly relaying conspiracy theories about the fire’s causes. But he did let his deputy prime minister, Zsolt Semjén, head of Hungary’s Christian Democratic party, give a TV interview (to be broadcast on Easter Monday) describing the fire as “a tragic symbol” of the “apocalyptic loss of values we are witnessing in the western world”. “The French secularist, anti-church policy is also deeply responsible” for the blaze, Semjén added.
The fire at Notre Dame broke out at a time when European politics, not least in France, is riven with culture wars, with much of the public debate revolving around values and historical legacies. Yet, when it comes to faith and Christendom, Europe’s national populists are a decidedly mixed bunch.
Take Marine Le Pen in France. She may have inherited from her father a party, the National Front (now National Rally), with some roots in ultra-conservative Catholic movements, but she has also moved it away from religious slogans, in a bid to “normalise” it and widen its reach. Her tweets about Notre Dame essentially praised the firefighters and gave architectural warnings about the rebuilding – she didn’t say a word about “Christian Europe”. Remember that in 2013 she distanced herself from Catholic street protests against gay marriage.
A divorced mother, Le Pen likes to portray herself as a modern, even socially progressive, figure. In a twisted way, she frames France’s brand of secularism (laïcité) as a shield against perceived Muslim encroachment. In the Netherlands, the far-right Geert Wilders uses rhetoric that combines pro-gay, anti-Islam and pro-1968 values.
On the other hand, a leader of Germany’s AfD party, Alice Weidel, lost no time in drawing a connection with other anti-Christian “attacks” in France. “During Holy Week #NotreDame burns. March: second largest church Saint-Sulpice burns. February: 47 attacks in France,” she tweeted. Predictably, that line of thought was also on display in Russian propaganda outlets. Meanwhile, rightwing online networks, some US-based, spread delirious comparisons with 9/11. Whether any of this will translate into EU election voting is an open question.
Although some of Europe’s populists do like to wax lyrical about Christian identity, and constantly stoke fears about migration and population “replacement”, it is a narrative that doesn’t necessarily take hold among Christian believers. In fact, according to some studies, European Christians tend to be more “immune” to rightwing populism than non-religious voters.
In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s open racism finds a good amount of push-back from Catholic grassroots networks – not least because it runs entirely counter to the pope’s messages about welcoming refugees. In Poland, although the ruling nationalist party is in a quasi-alliance with parts of the Catholic hierarchy, the local church is reportedly divided. A predominantly Catholic country is politically split down the middle between liberal democrats and conservative nationalists – with the opposition apparently well placed to make gains in the EU elections.
For all of Orbán and his allies’ agitation, fearmongering about “Christian Europe” being under threat – and suggesting the Notre Dame fire could be a metaphor for that – may only go so far. A recent poll indicates European voters have other priorities, such as corruption, wages and emigration (rather than immigration).
The Notre Dame catastrophe has no doubt been a traumatic event, but seeking to capitalise on it politically may be a far-right miscalculation. The French academic Olivier Roy has written that Europe’s rightwing populists are “practically no longer Christian”: not all of them refer to Christian identity – and those who do promote policies (scapegoating minorities, or refusing to help people fleeing poverty and war) that have little to do with Christian values.
In the 1950s, the European project’s founding fathers were mostly Christian democrats (Robert Schumann, Jean Monnet, Alcide de Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer), but it didn’t cross their minds to make a reference to Christian identity in their official documents. The EU’s motto is: “United in diversity”. Orbán and others may want to wage a “civilisational” battle over identity, but that should be called out for what it is: a cynical manipulation and an irrelevant paranoia. Not unlike the wild theories that surfaced after the fire at Notre Dame.
• Natalie Nougayrède is a Guardian columnist