For a few days this month, France experienced a relapse into the type of anti-Catholic rhetoric that, 100 years ago, would have thrilled half the country and infuriated everyone else.

Laurence Rossignol, the former Socialist government minister, denounced Catholics for trying to restrict access to IVF and abortion, and seeking to stop euthanasia’s legalisation. Her comments paled, however, in comparison to the hard Left’s former presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He accused President Emmanuel Macron of behaving like a “little priest”. Across the country, Twitter erupted with denunciations of any rapprochement between L’État et L’Église.

The spark for these charged remarks was Macron’s decision to deliver a speech to French Catholic bishops and more than 400 Catholic leaders at the Collège des Bernardins, the centre of Catholic intellectual life in Paris.

Macron isn’t the first president of the Fifth Republic to engage with Catholic bishops in a public setting. Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, formally welcomed Catholic hierarchs to the Élysée several times and invariably referred positively to France’s Catholic heritage.

What made Macron’s address different was that he actively encouraged French Catholics to participate in French life as Catholics. He even identified three “gifts” which Catholics could offer France.

The first was sagesse: the Church’s centuries-old depository of wisdom, particularly about questions of human life. Catholics, Macron indicated, shouldn’t be afraid to express their insights into these matters. “You consider,” he said matter-of-factly, “that our duty is to protect life, particularly when that life is defenceless.”

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