“They say France is the eldest daughter of the Church, but she’s quite an unfaithful one”. These words, spoken by Pope Francis in 2015 to some young French highschoolers, were a joke. However, it does show how complicated the relationship between France and the Church is.
But where does this saying come from? For a long time, French kings were anointed “eldest sons of the Church”. The custom was initiated with Clovis, the first Frankish king to be baptized a Christian in 496. In Europe, it was the first ever conversion of a monarch to Catholicism.
This is how the spiritual connection began between French kings and the Catholic Church. Ever since, this relationship was never an easy one, especially when it came down to ruling the country. Between the kings and the popes, who should be the ones to master the minds and guide the population?
This 15th-century painting is the most famous one of Clovis’ christening in the cathedral of Reims. This event is considered as one of the most important ones in French history. All French kings after Clovis were named “eldest sons of the Church”.
One might have thought that the French Revolution, and the suppression of the monarchy, would have put an end to the line of the eldest sons of the Church – especially as the power of the Church had been challenged by the triumph of the reason over the faith, from the Lumières’ philosophy.
Yet, in France, nothing’s simple. In between two republics, the first and the second, kings and emperor sprang back up. The pope refused to anoint Napoleon with the title of eldest son of the Church. He granted it to Louis XVIII and Charles XX.
The last “king of the French”, Louis-Philippe, didn’t claim this title. He wanted to be the “citizen king”. That’s probably why the saying, and the title, disappeared under his reign. It’s then the whole country, the Nation, that becomes the eldest daughter of the Church.
Louis-Philippe is the embodiment of major turning point in the notion and the representation of monarchy in France. He’s not crowned king of France, but king of the French. His reign spread from 1830 to 1848, under a constitutional monarchy: it’s the July Monarchy. Louis-Philippe taking an oath in front of the Chamber, 9th of August 1830, Ary Scheffer.
While it used to be barely used, this saying gets popular at the end of the 19th Century. What for? For the 1400th anniversary of Clovis’ christening – in a Republic that was being more and more anticlerical. The 1905 law on the Separation of the Churches and the State is on the way. In this tensed period, senior members of the Catholic Church took advantage of this celebration. By imposing this saying, they tried to strengthen the vision they had of France – a country of great importance in the Catholic world.
Since then, the saying “the eldest daughter of the Church” has stuck to the French republic. Yet, in a country of 60% of faithless citizens, it hasn’t really caught on.
The French nation is built on a secular and revolutionary legacy. It’s one that allows all citizens to live according to their faith and opinions, without one religion getting the upper hand. In freedom and mutual respect. And that’s what’s most important!
To go further
Behind the scenes of the papal joke: “They say France is the eldest daughter of the Church, but she’s quite an unfaithful one”. When Pope Francis said that, a small diplomatic crisis between France and the Vatican had been lasting for months. Why’s that? President François Hollande had appointed the new ambassador of France to the Holy See.
The pope refused to approve the appointment of Laurent Stefanini: he’s a Catholic, yes, but an openly gay one!
Ever since the Separation of the Churches and the State, the French Republic doesn’t have a state religion nor an official religion.
This chart from the Viavoice Institute 2019 for the Observatoire de la laïcité shows the link the French have to religions.
A perspective on laïcité: why are French laws superior to spiritual ones?