From JOSEPH CARROLL in Paris
THE question which most intrigues French political observers about the December 5 Presidential election is not "Will General de Gaulle be elected?" but "How are French Catholics going to vote?"
Looking to the Hierarchy for guidance has only deepened the uncertainty. After a 24-hour consultation in Rome, the French Bishops issued a communique saying: "The Bishops recall to Catholics their duty to vote according to their conscience, informed and enlightened by the requirements of the common good."
This laconic directive has raised more questions than it has answered. But its importance cannot be estimated. Catholics represent 18 million votes out of a total electorate of 28 million.
The reactions to the Bishops' instruction have varied considerably. There are those who are surprised that there is no explicit reference to the inevitable bogey of "laicity" or State aid to Church schools.
Others are puzzled why there is no guidance on the hierarchy's attitude to the left-wing candidature of Francois Mitterrand, who is being openly supported by the Communist Party.
The secular press has devoted an amazing amount of space to analysing what one paper called the "serpent-like prudence" of the hierarchy's neutral position, an attitude which contrasts with the numerous interventions of the Church in French politics in the past.
Not with De Gaulle
Some observers explain this reticence as a result of the lessons learned by the disastrous embroilment in the Dreyfus Affair which led to the suppression of the religious orders and the revocation of the Napoleonic Concordat. They also cite the hierarchy's solid support for Marshal Petain's Vichy regime, which was to cause so much anguish to many priests and laity during the Occupation.
It is argued that this time the Church is not going to make the mistake of being identified with General de Gaulle and having to suffer for it when the 75-year-old President disappears from the scene.
But this is to simplify things to the point of distortion. The Bishops for example have come out on various political issues in recent years in a way which has illustrated that they are not motivated by an un worthy kow-towing to the secular power. Examples are the Algerian War, the 1958 constitutional referendum and various manifestations of agricultural and industrial unrest.
For the intelligent Catholic the fact that the Bishops have refrained from telling him or her how to vote is only to be expected as in accordance with traditional Catholic practice, but it is certainly true that, in addition, the bishops themselves are divided on the electoral issue.
Vote for stability
The so-called Catholic vote (how many of the 40 million baptised go to Mass?) is divided broadly into "the mass" and the "intelligentsia". The former is overwhelmingly Gaullist according to most observers. This section of the electorate is largely feminine, of average education, conservative in outlook and therefore will vote for a stability incarnated in the person of General de Gaulle.
The "intelligentsia" if fewer in number is anti-Gaullist. It in turn is analysed under such subdivisions as "integrist and progressivist". or "militant and activist", or "right and left".
The "activists" or extreme right wing fringe will presumably vote for M. Tixier-Vignancour who labels his candidature as "a crusade in defence of the Christian West". But the former Vichy minister and passionate defender of OAS leaders will have no appeal for the majority of intelligent Catholics.
Conservative minded i n
fluential Catholics who distrust De Gaulle's external policy such as overtures to Moscow, and hostility to the Common Market will still hesitate before giving their support to the MRP Catholic candidate, Jean Lecanuet who although sympathetic has no chance against De Gaulle, who will in any case take numerous MRP votes from him.
In this category may be considered the bishops themselves. The General's anti-European policy is commonly believed to be frowned on in the Vatican which favoured the supranationalism of Catholic statesmen like Robert Schumann, Adenauer and De Gasperi. The General's nationalism is felt to smack too much of the doctrines of Charles Maurras and the royalism of pre-war Action Francaise, an organisation which Pius XI condemned.
For militant left-wing Catholics, Francois Mitterrand is an attractive candidate who in spite of Communist support has not let himself be compromised but has stressed his hidependence of the parties, Even on the controversial cthurch schools question he has made it clear that the present situation of limited aid would not he drastically changed and the privileged position of Alsace and Lorraine would be maintained for the time being.
But the more one analyses the more the "Catholic vote" eludes analysis. Perhaps it is a myth and the Bishops recognised it as such when they simply told the faithful: "Vote according to your conscience".