Babette, who is the moderator of the News et liens païens Face Book group, entertained my questions and offered me extensive access to the French Pagan community. With her help, I was able to get a snap-shot of Pagan life in France seen through the eyes of a diverse set of practitioners.
In general, the French Pagan population is small and spread out. “After a quick opinion poll on Face Book we estimate ourselves to be between 3000 and 5000. But it is more a guess than anything,” Babette said. There are no reliable statistics just as in the U.S.
Babette also described the community as young. She said, “We are just getting out of the proverbial broom closet.” Echoing this description was Luc Martel, a Hellenist from Lyon. He said, “le Paganisme français est encore dans son enfance, il reste invisible et informel, même s’il est en phase de croissance.” [Translation: French Paganism is still in its infancy. It still remains invisible and informal even in this growth phase.]
Who is coming out of the broom closet? Which paths are most popular? French Pagan practice spans the spectrum. To name a few, there are Polytheists, Hellenists, Ásatrú, Reconstuctionists, and Alexandrian and Gardnerian witches. However, most of my contacts said that Druidisme is the most popular. Mariane, an Ásatrú and director of the French division of the Pagan Federation International, said “[Druidism seems to be] the best organized and has the largest number of followers.” Ana Lama, Druidress for Communauté de l’Arbre Druidique (CAD), adds:
We have an important connection to [Celtic] history on our own ground. We try as much as we can to rely on archeological discoveries…Most of our groups are built upon Gallic roots using Gallic tribe names and rituals. Many druidic groups… are affiliated with Great Britain groups.
A few people did speculate that Wicca has the greater following. However, this is difficult to assess because most French Wiccans are self-taught eclectic, solitary practitioners. There are very few covens or organizations outside of Paris and Lyon. The most well-known is the Ligue Wiccane Eclectíque based in Paris. It supports Cercle Séquana and the on-line magazine Lune Bleue. Siannon and Xavier Mondon two Ligue Wiccane members, co-coordinate one of the few Wiccan festivals: the Festival de Déesses.
Why are most Wiccans solitary eclectics? The answer is simple: language. To date, the majority of Wiccan books are written and published in English. Therefore non-English speakers have had limited educational resources. Iconic books like Starkhawk’s Spiral Dance and Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, for example, have never been translated. However, Scott Cunningham’s books are available in French. As a result, many French Wiccans follow his solitary teachings.
Along with reading limitations, there are also very few metaphysical shops. This problem affects all Pagans; not just the Wiccans. Consequently, as best stated by Luc Martel, “Le Paganisme reste encore largement une cyber-religion.” [Paganism is still largely a cyber-religion.] Most communication, interactions and purchases are done online. This cultural phenomenon supports Martel and Babette’s earlier point that the community is, as a whole, “young.” Wide-spread internet usage began less than twenty years ago.
Despite the emerging Pagan culture, Babette says many Pagans are still “deep in the broom closet.” When I first asked why, I expected horrific stories of religious prejudice. But, in fact, I got a very different answer. As Siannon of Ligue Wiccane Eclectíque said, “Religion in general is a bit taboo.”
The French have a very different relationship with religion than Americans. As Babette explains:
There has always been this vision of [religiosity] as something for the poor, non-educated, or for women. [This] explains partly why secularism is such a big deal. I’m almost sure a French person will far more easily talk you about sex than religion.
To understand this more clearly, it is best to briefly compare the religious ideology between the U.S and France. The U.S. Constitution supports religious freedom by protecting the right to worship. All religions must be included or excluded where appropriate. In France, the law supports religious freedom by legally excluding religion from public life – recognizing none. This is called laïcité or secularism. As an example, in 2004, the French Government banned the wearing of religious symbols in schools including head scarfs, yarmulke, crosses, pentacles etc. Could the U.S. government ever impose such a ban? Consider this PewGlobal comparison. 50% of Americans feel that religion is a very important and 53% said that it was “necessary to believe in God.” In France, the figures are 13% and 15% respectively. Which society is, as a culture, more secular?
Siannon and others argue that French laicité actually means “no religion unless you are Catholic.” In 1995, the State created Miviludes, an office to watch for derive sectaire [Cultic Deviances.] Unlike in the U.S., French law clearly defines cults in an effort to protect its citizen’s safety. In 2009, Miviludes fined a French Scientology group for engaging in fraudulent behavior. Although this is done in the name of secularism, the State’s cult watch is considered a threat to minority religious practice.
Due to this culturally-ingrained secularism, there are very few aggressive public challenges to Paganism. Xavier Mondon of Ligue Wiccane Eclectíque explains: “[People don’t even realize that] there are any pagans left today. For most people, [Paganism] is…old historical stuff.” Most of the population is indifferent or simply unaware. Others confuse it with silly fantasy or “charlatainism” as noted by Xael, a Wiccan eclectic and Shaman. While there are Christian zealots who confuse witchcraft and Satanism, this is infrequent and only happens in the private sector.
Aside from the limitations caused by language, misconceptions and the State’s cult-watch, there is a bigger problem facing the French Pagan community. As best stated by Luc Martel, “Le plus grand obstacle au Paganisme français, ce sont les Païens français !” [The biggest obstacle for French Paganism is French Pagans.] All of my correspondents made this same statement in some form. Christophe, a Gardnerian Witch, blamed the large population of teenage practitioners who don’t know how to perform rituals or organize covens and who believe being a “witch” is trendy. Others blamed hot tempers, egos and individualistic natures. Babette blames the broom closet. She said, “French Pagans are so comfortable “hiding behind their [facades] and the internet [that] they won’t come out.”
However, the culture is changing. Druidress Anna Lama noted, “At this moment we are trying to organize all Druidic groups under a Druidic council called Comarlia.” Along with the PFI, Ligue Wiccane Eclectíque and other such organizations, there are smaller groups forming locally and on the web. Of course, Babette and Luc Martel, with his groups Fleur de Lyon and Café Païen, are working on the community wreath project: Aureole Païenne. Babette remarked, “[We are] trying to be an active community. We have a long way ahead of us and the first steps are to let the different traditions speak to each other and create bridges.” Echoing this hope, Xael said, “Things are changing. In time, I believe Paganism will be recognized as a true spiritual [path.]”
Note: The original community wreath will be retired during an Ostara ritual at the Atlanta Pagan Market Place of Ideas next weekend. A new wreath will take its place and begin its journey. Babette and Georgia-based NGS have exchanged ribbons to be included on each other’s wreaths. There have been at least two other U.S.-based community wreaths started since the original article was published.