On a rainy Wednesday morning at the end of March, President Emmanuel Macron stood in the courtyard of the Invalides to pay homage on behalf of the French Republic to Colonel Arnaud Beltrame. The Friday before, Radouane Lakdim, who swore allegiance to ISIS, had entered a supermarket in Trèbes armed with several weapons and shot dead two people, injured more and took several others hostage. Beltrame, a gendarme on duty at the scene, offered to give himself in exchange for the last hostage, one of the checkout assistants. He was shot and stabbed by Lakdim, who was subsequently killed by the security forces. Beltrame died in hospital after receiving the last rites.

It was the latest in a depressing series of terror attacks. But the public was moved by Beltrame’s offer to exchange himself for the last hostage. The revelation that he had returned to Catholicism at the age of 33, having been baptised as a child but brought up in a non-religious family, increased speculation as to what had informed his choice. In La Croix, the Catholic daily newspaper, Bruno Frappat hailed “a lesson in courage” and argued that Beltrame’s faith must have played a part in his decision.

However, Frappat said, it would be “in bad taste” for Catholics to try to claim Beltrame’s death as evidence of their own virtues. Frappat also argued that, amid France’s present religious tensions, there was a risk of making the killing into an act of propaganda. He concluded that Beltrame had left a vision of hope; “hope, not as a gift or a due but as the work of the will of man”, and that “this lesson in death was a lesson in life”.

That Arnaud Beltrame is a national hero is undisputed across the political and religious spectrum. An editorial in Libération, a centre-left daily, stated that the national homage “brings together the France of the right and the one of the left, ‘the France which believes in heaven and the one which does not’ ”. That succinctly describes the polarisation in French society between right and left, Catholic and anti-clerical, which has its roots in the French Revolution and more recently the 1905 law separating Church and state.

Yet while managing to agree on the altruism of Beltrame’s sacrifice, the inevitable has happened and groups which have a deeply entrenched distrust of one another have become involved in a bizarre spat concerning freemasonry.

In a press release published on the day after the attack Philippe Charuel, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of France, not to be confused with the militantly secular Grand Orient, paid tribute to Beltrame – who, he revealed, was a member of the Jérôme Bonaparte Lodge in Rueil-Nanterre. On the same day La Croix reported a close friend of Beltrame as saying he had distanced himself from freemasonry in the last few years. This was contested by Charuel who was quoted in Libération as saying: “Our brother Arnaud Beltrame participated at a masonic meeting just one month before his death.”

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