The prayers of a tiny congregation echo each Sunday afternoon in the crypt of England’s Canterbury Cathedral—in halting French. Many of the same intonations, betraying the same awkward command of the language, reverberate in New York City’s Eglise Française du Saint Esprit on 60th Street. The congregants are descendants of the Huguenots, French Protestants. This year, across the globe, France is paying a belated tribute to the Huguenots’ forefathers who suffered religious persecution. For the past several months French newspapers and magazines have been dominated by articles about the Huguenots. In the past six months publishers have rushed out more than 50 books on the Huguenots, until recently ignored. This fall the state-run television network, Antenne 2, interrupted regular programming to present special hourlong reports on their descendants. And for the first time in the republic’s history a president, François Mitterrand, publicly addressed the French Protestant community—which now numbers a scant three or four per cent of the population.
The reason for the outburst is the 300th anniversary of one of the blackest days in France’s history: ‘Sun King’ Louis xiv’s revocation on Oct. 18, 1685, of the Edict of Nantes. The edict had permitted the Huguenots to practise their faith without fear; with the revocation of the edict Louis unleashed a wave of persecutions and torture. Nearly a quarter of a million Protestants were forcibly exiled or fled France. Some of their descendants became famous in the New World, such as Paul Revere and Franklin Delano (de la Noye) Roosevelt and, in Canada, lawyer J.J. Robinette. But in France the diaspora remained largely unacknowledged until this year.
Those Protestants who remained in France kept a low profile for centuries. Indeed, a 1980 poll commissioned by LExpress, a leading French newsmagazine, reported that 54 per cent of the French citizens polled associated the word “Protestant” with “AngloSaxon,” while 21 per cent admitted that the word made them think of a sect, such as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church —the “Moonies.” Said retired businessman Jean Schloessing, a member of the Société de L’Histoire du Protestantisme Français: “We have worked hard at being discreet. For years being a Protes-
tant in France was like being a Jew.”
This year’s celebrations demonstrate that much of that has changed. On Oct. 11 Mitterrand was the keynote speaker at a solemn ceremony in Paris with more than 1,365 members of France’s Protestant community. The president solemnly declared in his speech that the revocation “was one of the bloodiest persecutions in the history of France.” The gesture surprised many Huguenots. Rev. Jacques Maury, president of the 850,000-member Fédération Protestante de France, says that he is “astonished” at the interest generated by the anniversary. Added Elisabeth Labrousse, award-winning author of La Révocation de lEdit de Nantes, a blow-by-blow account of that period: “The media response has been amazing. At least the French will no longer say, ‘Hugnenots? Connais pas [don’t know].’ ”
But some Protestants suspect that Mitterrand had another motive to participate in the commemoration. At present, four million of France’s 54 million inhabitants are immigrants, and racist incidents against them have been increasing. This spring’s nationwide county elections saw the extreme right-wing National Front party garner 8.7 per cent of the vote. In obvious reference to the growing racism in the country, Mitterrand warned in his
speech to the guests that the desire to exclude minorities was a “gangrene that is still with us.”
The Huguenots were persecuted long before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The first martyrs were burned at the stake in 1583. Then came the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Aug. 23, 1572, which spread from Paris throughout France, leaving thousands of Protestants dead in its wake. The Huguenots anticipated that their troubles were over when a Protestant Bourbon, Henry iv, ascended to the throne. Although he converted to Ro-
man Catholicism to appease powerful factions at court, he helped his former coreligionists by promulgating the Edict of Nantes in 1598, granting them religious and political freedom.
But even in the period of relative tolerance while the edict was in force, the Huguenots continued to suffer for their religious beliefs. Some Catholics tried subtle means of conversion, such as offers of money. After the revocation soldiers dragged Huguenots to mass and forced their mouths open to receive communion. If they refused to renounce their faith, Huguenots were
imprisoned or shipped to the French West Indies.
The religious struggle even spread to New France, later Canada. Although six of the colony’s first 11 intendants, or governors, were Huguenots, Jesuit missionaries were charged with converting Indians to Catholicism in part to keep Protestantism out of the new territories. They were unsuccessful—there are currently as many as 200,000 French Protestant descendants. Finally, as a result of mounting Catholic pressures, Louis xiv revoked his grandfather’s edict and made Protestantism illegal. Churches were destroyed, schools closed, children abducted, pastors exiled; if Huguenot ministers returned to France, they were hanged. The French army sent detachments of foot soldiers to be billeted in Huguenot homes with orders to obtain, by any means necessary, the conversion of their reluctant hosts.
In 1787, more than a century after the Revocation, Louis xvi proclaimed an edict of “tolerance.” It took another 15 years for Protestant churches to win legal status. By that time as many as 300,000 people—including entire villages in the southeastern alpine Haute Provence region—had fled the country. As Mitterrand pointed out in his speech, they took their learning and skills with them. Industries that they had dominated, such as publishing, collapsed or shifted to Switzerland, where the French theologian John Calvin had fled in the early years of persecution.
Yet France’s Huguenots have managed to acquire wealth and power despite persecution. The Protestant community in France includes twice as many upper-level managers as the national average, according to a national polling organization, IFOP-La Vie. And slowly the minority is achieving political power. Indeed, at the Mitterrand commemoration in October at least four Protestant cabinet ministers were sitting prominently at the event.
The recent flurry of interest in their troubled past has left many French Protestants with the sense that they have a special mission to perform. Maury argues that it is to preach tolerance in a society that is experiencing “an irrational destructive and paralysing fear of anyone who is different.” Indeed, other French minority groups look to the Huguenots for help. Ahmed Fouathi, the director of international relations with the antiracist movement SOS Racisme, told Maclean’s, “They were the first to help us when we started to get organized.” For France’s Huguenots, fighting for beliefs is a way of life.
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