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Despite Corruption Charges, French Catholics Stand Behind Francois Fillon


Presidential candidates in the U.S. often court religious voters who can make or break a campaign. Religion doesn't win votes in France the way it does in the U.S., but it is one reason conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon remains a contender despite scandals that have dogged his campaign. Joanna Kakissis reports from Paris.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Monsieur Francois Fillon.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: With his salt-and-pepper hair and stoic demeanor, Francois Fillon looks like a president out of Central Casting.


FRANCOIS FILLON: (Through interpreter) I'm not asking you to like me but to support me. We're not choosing a buddy. We're choosing a president.

KAKISSIS: Fillon is also the only presidential candidate who speaks openly about his faith. He's Catholic, and he told French TV what that means to him.


FILLON: (Through interpreter) I'm a Christian, meaning I never make a decision that would be contrary to respecting human dignity or solidarity.

KAKISSIS: France is officially a secular nation, and only a third of the population identifies with a religion. Many voters are actually turned off by religion, says Pierre Brechon, a political scientist who studies religion in public life. He spoke to NPR via Skype from the French city of Grenoble.

PIERRE BRECHON: (Through interpreter) In 1905, back when religion was at the center of political life, France introduced the law of laicite, the concept of constitutional secularism. But religious orientation does still color political views today.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in French).

KAKISSIS: Catholics, Brechon says, tend to vote for conservatives, and Fillon is appealing to them. Fillon's got several supporters in the congregation of La Madeleine, a landmark Roman Catholic Church in a well-heeled neighborhood in central Paris. Emmanuel Alain Cabanis, a professor of medicine at the University of Paris, holds palm fronds as the congregation celebrates Palm Sunday. He says he'd love to hear a fourth word added to the French national motto and says Fillon is the only candidate who seems comfortable with spirituality.

EMMANUEL ALAIN CABANIS: I am a Fillon supporter for reason of liberty. I think he's the best guarantee of liberty, equality, fraternity and spirituality.

KAKISSIS: And the professor is not swayed by allegations that don't seem very spiritual at all, that Fillon gave his family fake jobs that cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of euros.

MONIQUE GOBERT: (Speaking French).

KAKISSIS: Neither is Monique Gobert, a church member who takes care of the flowers here.

GOBERT: (Through interpreter) He's a churchgoer. I cannot see him stealing from the state. We gave him a certain amount of money for his campaign to do what he likes. Maybe he paid his wife too much, but he had the right.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in French).

KAKISSIS: Fillon is counting on supporters like these who see him as responsible and moral no matter what. Thousands turned out for his recent rally in Paris, including Silim Mourid, a 29-year-old aviation manager. Mourid is Muslim, and he says he believes Fillon's sense of Christian values also make the presidential candidate appreciative of other religions.

SILIM MOURID: (Speaking French).

KAKISSIS: "We have candidates like Marine Le Pen talking about banning Muslims," Mourid says. "There's no getting around religion. We need to talk about it." For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.