As we witness the French intifada, it is worth asking how France arrived at this point. In the spiritual vacuum left by atheism, the French establishment lacks the moral and political will to resist an absolutist ideology which is more powerful than its secular nihilism.
Paul Ricoeur is arguably the greatest living French philosopher, and a Protestant of sorts by the anemic standards of modern-day Europe. He wrote an article over fifty years ago which is all the more current for being so dated.
“To understand contemporary French Protestantism one must keep in mind three main factors which form the background of our thought, our life and our work as Protestants in western Europe. The first is what one might call the failure of the Reformation. The great fact which conditions the life of the churches in continental Europe is that, except in the British Isles and the Scandinavian countries, the Reformation did not succeed in replacing the Catholic form of Christianity and in building a new European civilization. It was completely destroyed in Spain, Italy, Austria and Belgium; it was nearly destroyed in France; and even in Germany the Thirty Years’ War left a country divided into a multiplicity of religious provinces.
The second fact to be remembered is the profound disturbance of modern culture by the 18C Enlightenment. No other country was as radically shaken by this movement of ideas as was France. This shock is responsible, among other factors, for the strains within our literature, which encompasses the traditions of both Voltaire and Pascal. Our system of education is torn by the struggle for monopoly between the anticlerical state and the church, a struggle which has resulted in the rigid character of our present school system. Our political parties too are often brought back to the old oppositions between clericalism and anticlericalism. It is always difficult for a Protestant to find his place in this old struggle between conflicting ideologies, neither of which represents his own spirit.
The third factor to be kept in mind is the dechristianization of the working class since the middle of the 19C. Before that period the bourgeoisie tended to be Voltarian, rationalistic and agnostic, whereas the workers crowded into the churches. But in the middle of the last century the bourgeoisie found again the path to the churches, while the laborers deserted them. Unfortunately, this was also the time when children started working in the coal pits. Women were forced into the spinning mills, and men had to work 12 to 18 hours every day to earn starvation wages.
The workers’ desertion of the churches is the background for the widespread conversion of the French working class to communism after the Russian revolution. The midwife of this conversion was the French socialism of the 19C which was one of the true heirs of 18C rationalism. This convergence of agnosticism and communism in the working class poses a difficult problem not only politically but also, as we shall see, for evangelization. In this connection the Protestants are not necessarily in a better position than the Catholics because, as a consequence of the failure of the French Reformation, Protestantism has its roots among the peasantry and the bourgeoisie, but little influence among the workers.
These three facts—the failure of the Reformation, the strains in our culture created by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and the dechristianization and passage to communism of a large part of the laboring class—form the background of our existence as French Protestants.
This huge process which started in Europe with the Renaissance, or even earlier, is a kind of titanic revolt—not only the product of freedom but also the result of destruction of the bonds which tied the creature to the Creator. Secularization involves both moral greatness and sin, destiny and deviation, man both finds his stature in every field of though and action, and loses himself in dangerous adventures which he pursues without limit. The death of God that Nietzsche spoke of is the fate of Europe and perhaps of America,” “French Protestantism Today,” The Christian Century (October 26, 1955), 1236-37.