**François Fillon, Embracing His Catholicism, Challenges France’s Secular Tradition
When French presidential contender François Fillon marked the Feast of the Assumption last summer, he attended Mass at Solesmes Abbey, a Benedictine monastery known for resisting the anticlerical purges of the French Revolution. The trip, coming just weeks after the slaying of a Catholic priest in a terror attack, didn’t go unnoticed.
“He doesn’t hide the fact that he’s Catholic,” said Christophe Billan, head of Sens Commun, a grass-roots movement comprising thousands of French Catholics.
In France, the strict separation between personal faith and public life, known as laïcité, is a pillar of national identity. However, a confluence of events—from the legalization of gay marriage to the more recent string of Islamist terror attacks—has many conservative voters looking to the country’s Christian heritage as a bulwark.
Mr. Fillon’s candidacy is seizing on that impulse. In publicly embracing his faith, the 62-year-old is tapping a wellspring of Catholic voters who have begun coalescing into a potentially decisive voting bloc.
His performance during the country’s first-ever conservative primaries provided the clearest sign yet of the revived Catholic vote. After lagging behind rivals for weeks, Mr. Fillon spent the homestretch of the race debating opponent Alain Juppé over which of them stood closer to the teachings of Pope Francis—a development Le Monde described as “unprecedented.”
More than two-thirds of the people who voted in the primaries described themselves as Catholic in exit polls, and they helped hand Mr. Fillon a commanding victory. Pollster OpinionWay said 83% of Catholics who regularly attend Mass voted for Mr. Fillon and 68% of nonpracticing Catholics also backed him. Between 55%-60% of the overall French electorate identifies as Catholic, according to Jerome Fourquet, director of polling firm IFOP.**