France 'no longer a Catholic country'

Paris, France - Barely half the French population describe themselves as Catholic, according to a poll released yesterday, sparking a leading religious publication to declare France "no longer a Catholic country".

A poll published in Le Monde des Religions yesterday showed the number of self-declared French Catholics had dropped from 80 per cent in the early 1990s and 67 per cent in 2000 and to 51 per cent today.

The number of atheists has risen sharply to 31 per cent from 23 per cent in 1994.

"In its institutions, but also in its mentalities, France is no longer a Catholic country," wrote Frederic Lenoir, editor in chief of Le Monde des Religions.

French Catholicism, while suffering during the Revolution, did not begin its real decline until 1905, experts say, when pre-war France was declared a secular state, all funding of religious groups was stopped and religious buildings were declared the property of the state.

Yesterday's poll showed that only 10 per cent go to church regularly — mainly to Sunday mass or christenings. Of the 51 per cent who still call themselves Catholics, only half said they believed in God. Many said they were Catholics because it was a family tradition.

Le Monde des Religions cited varied reasons for the decline, including the rural exodus, changing values and the rise of individualism. One devout Catholic said the biggest problem was that younger generations were no longer interested.

"When you go to Sunday mass, it's just old people, except for special occasions like midnight mass," said Marie-France Guillon, a retired school teacher from the fishing village of Crac in Brittany. "When I tried to get my grandson, who took communion in March, to go to Sunday school, he said 'no thanks, I'd rather stay and play monopoly.' "

Despite the drop, however, Catholicism remains by far the country's number one religion. The poll found Muslims accounted for only four per cent of the population (up from two per cent), Protestants three per cent and Jews one per cent.

"Catholicism will remain the most important religion," said Frederic Lenoir, who pointed out that the number of regular churchgoing Catholics still equalled the total sum of French Muslims, Protestants and Jews.