Napoleon, who was a brilliant strategist, often told subordinates that they should treat the pope as if he had 200,000 men at arms. In other words, the answer to Stalin’s cynical remark”“How many divisions does the pope have?””was about ten, give or take, and they were extremely loyal and prepared to die.

This didn’t stop Napoleon from kidnapping Pius VI in 1799 when he refused to give up temporal authority (Pius died in France a few weeks later partly because of his imprisonment). His successor, Pius VII, believed in democracy and signed a Concordat with the “First Consul,” soon to be Emperor. But he, too, was arrested, as were several cardinals. All of which, more or less, came to an end when Napoleon fell and was exiled to Elba.

Relations between Church and State in France, however, have remained testy ever since, including this weekend’s confrontation over the effort of François Hollande’s French Socialists, who control all the important levers of political power at the moment, to impose so-called gay marriage on the nation”and while they’re at it, gay adoption, and government-funded artificial insemination for lesbian couples. That was too much for many.

In classic French fashion, a huge number of people went into the streets” descendre dans la rue being almost a formal political process in France. Numbers are always contested, but about 800,000 and perhaps as many as one million people”five times Napoleon’s figure”marched three different parade routes to the Eiffel Tower Sunday.

Five years ago, almost to the day, I wrote on this page about then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech on the occasion of being installed as an honorary canon at St. John Lateran in Rome. He emphasized a theme he had written about several times earlier: The French are neglecting their heritage by ignoring France’s Christian past. Furthermore, he said, the Church should be more prominent publicly. French society needed what only it could bring.

French friends warned me that it would make no significant difference. In a way, they were right. But it’s no small matter when a president speaks of the public importance of religion in a country like France. And it’s no small matter when nearly a million French show up publicly to demand what, many assume, they never would today.

The simple math is astonishing. France’s population is a fifth of America’s, which means the demonstration may have been the equivalent of five million Americans demonstrating in Washington.

In a kind of before-the-fact, backhanded compliment, the Socialist government has announced the formation of a surveillance agency, “the National Observatory of Secularism,” which will monitor religious groups (including the Church) in order to “dissolve” cases of “religious pathology.”

The opposition”which includes more than Catholics and other Christians”showed itself in the Manif pour tous (meaning Manifestation or Demonstration for All), the countermovement to Marriage pour tous (Marriage for All), which like its American equivalents is trying to push gay marriage as an equality issue. It’s hard to appreciate what a radical turn this level of organization means in Europe”and in France, still a cultural bellwether, in particular.

According to reports, one thousand buses were rented, five of the high-speed French TGV trains privately reserved to bring in people from all over the country. An imam from the north of France alone filled several dozen buses. And organizers had elaborate protocols worked out that advised marchers how to respond if confronted or attacked by the several gay militant groups who tried to disrupt previous demonstrations in November and December. There was even a comedian”Frigide Barjot”who got into the act leading the protesters.

The debate has taken place at a rather high level by American standards. The Church has defended a certain “anthropology” of marriage and received in reply some arguments that anthropology itself reflects a multitude of forms of marriage (but not, it ought to have been said, “gay marriage” in the modern sense). Writing in Le Monde , Danièl Hervieu-Léger, a sociologist, warned the French bishops, in an insincere show of concern, that, like the opposition to contraception in Humanae Vitae , opposition to gay marriage now is another “milestone . . . on the way to the end of Catholicism in France.”

The reality may be quite the opposite. The French bishops were careful not to make this a fight over religious doctrine, but no one is unaware that Catholics”as well as Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and a small contingent of non-believers (even a few gay voices)”fed into the opposition and the demonstration. As usual, the secular view is that the state is the defender of “secular morality,” which it has promised to impose on the nation, especially the schools. But believers have now been energized.

Still, this whole sad episode will also have many bad effects, not least on the once universal principle that democratic states are open to all. Traditional believers may be partly disenfranchised in the process, but it will clarify, as is already happening in America, that the modern state is not neutral between faiths and irreligion.

The state now has an ethos of its own that it will impose by the classic methods of modern tyrants: surveillance, destruction of bodies of resistance, and the heavy-handed imposition of state ideology.

Two-thirds of the French favor legalization of gay marriage. But as in other areas, democratic majorities can be as tyrannical as any regime. And the regime went several steps too far in pushing adoption and artificial insemination for lesbians.

It’s remarkable that these steps are being pushed forward when something on the order of 19,000 mayors and their associates have come out against gay marriage and opening adoption to gay couples, a group called “Mayors’ collective for children” ( Collectif des maires pour l’enfance ). Concern that children have a father and a mother (“No mother, it’s depressing!”) has been high in France.

Barring some miracle, however, Hollande’s government will work its will on the French”he’s shown himself quite high-handed on many fronts. But the opponents will go down fighting. And certainement , they will not go away.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing , and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West .

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Sarkozy and Secularism ,” Robert Royal

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