PARIS — A German-speaking barbarian, born in Belgium, who may or may not have been baptized 1,500 years ago, is making waves in France.
The 5th-century conquests of Clovis, chief of the Franks, established much of present-day France. But the government-sponsored celebration of his baptism is stirring controversy.
The government describes the baptism of Clovis as the "founding act of France" and says that celebrating it Sept. 22 will "give a new impulse to the spiritual future of Europe."
To critics, including many liberals within the Roman Catholic Church, this sounds like state promotion of a religion, especially given Pope John Paul II's announced campaign to re-evangelize the world.
"France, for John Paul II, like Poland, is one of the keys to the Catholic reconquest that he says alone can save the world," wrote the editor of Golias, a liberal bimonthly Roman Catholic magazine Sept. 11. "To claim that the baptism of Clovis is the founding event of the French nation is to relegate to the shadows [the French Revolution of] 1789 and the philosophy of the Rights of Man and to revive among some the nostalgia of a supposed golden age when the church and state collaborated closely."
Even the year of the baptism, AD 496, is in dispute. Most historians place it at least two years later. Even more politically charged is the day specifically chosen by the Vatican to celebrate Clovis's baptism: Sept. 22. It is also the date of the proclamation of the First French Republic in 1792, which ended the monarchy and first articulated the principle of separation of church and state.
Protests en masse
Last week, 67 groups joined a coalition to oppose state support of the Clovis celebration. Immigrant-rights groups joined because they oppose visions of a "white and Catholic" France, environmentalists because they defend "diversity in all its forms," and others, such as the Rseau Voltaire, because they support limiting the political influence of the clergy and promote rationalist values. The coalition will sponsor counterdemonstrations Sept. 22.
"The government is describing this baptism as the 'founding act of the nation,' " says Thierry Meyssan, president of the Rseau Voltaire, which heads the anti-Clovis coalition. "Quite apart from this historic mystification, the message is clear: To be French, you must be white and Christian."
The face of a young immigrant, Clovis Achi, from the Ivory Coast, a former French colony, has been featured on posters that read "He is Clovis, too." Mr. Achi says he opposes the Sept. 22 event because the "history of France is also my own." His parents, he says, named him Clovis after the 5th century warrior "because they liked the name."
French President Jacques Chirac's reference to France as the "eldest daughter of the church" during a Jan. 20 state visit to the Vatican this year did not ease concerns over whether the government was respecting the principle of laicity, or separation of church and state, established in France in 1905.
A poll released this week by Golias Magazine and the Louis Harris Institute found that 74 percent of French surveyed said that the reference to France as the eldest daughter of the church is "outmoded." Seventy-three percent of all Catholics surveyed also saw this view as outmoded.
In April, President Chirac instructed the government to set up a national committee to mark the 1,500th anniversary of the baptism of Clovis. According to historians, the only other French celebration of the baptism of Clovis was in the 18th century, nine years before the legal separation of church and state.
French bishops and then-Pope Leo III used that commemoration to dramatize calls for a Catholic renewal in France, including the notion of a mystic union of religion and the French nation.
The French government of the day refused to participate.
This century's celebration coincides with the Sept. 19 to 22 visit of Pope John Paul to France, a visit that is drawing criticism of its own. In an unpopular move, the Vatican expelled French Bishop Jacques Gaillot in January 1995 for openly disagreeing with church teaching on artificial birth control, the ordination of women priests, and homosexuality. French bishops have since endorsed the use of condoms to combat AIDS.
Paid by the state
Opposition to the visit and the Clovis connection has centered on French government financing of the pope's visit, estimated anywhere from $7 million to $27 million. In addition, local churches are expected to raise at least another $5 million to cover costs of the visit.
Critics have sued local elected officials who planned to use public funds for the papal visit. A judge in Reims, site of the Sept. 22 celebration, recently outlawed the payment of $300,000 to build a podium for the papal Mass.
According to this week's Golias-Harris Institute survey, 60 percent of those interviewed said that the use of local tax money to support the visit of the pope in France was not justified.
In the last few weeks, Masses have been disrupted by protesters, and a bomb was defused at one site the pope plans to visit. Opponents are also orchestrating calls to "debaptize" in protest of the visit and the Clovis celebrations. As of August, some 1,000 requests to revoke baptisms have been registered in France.
"The purpose of the Clovis celebration for France's conservative government was to re-create a social cohesion at a time when all the talk is of social fracture. But Clovis is far off in time, especially since we've become a country of immigration. And any desire to find national reconciliation through Catholicism is bound to displease," says Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, director of research for the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Political Life.
French officials connected with the Clovis celebration say that such criticism is exaggerated. "Religion is a part of our national legacy, it helped model our civilization," says Pierre Pougnard, who works with the Clovis commission.
Do the French really care?
In today's France, 80 percent of French list an affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church, but only about 10 percent say they attend Mass. Recent public-opinion polls show that most French are not as concerned about church- state issues as the news-media debate suggests.
"People may be fighting in cafes over this issue, but 1,500 years [ago] is far away for most people," says Roland Cayrol, president of the Paris-based CSA polling group.
Nevertheless, 19 books have come out about Clovis's life this year, as well as CD-ROMs, two major television series, and countless colloquia.
Not bad for a barbarian with 1,500 years of history behind him.