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Conservative French Presidential Nominee's Unusual Tactic: Tout His Faith

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Conservative French presidential candidate Francois Fillon delivers a speech April 9 during a campaign meeting in Paris. The two-round presidential election is set for April 23 and May 7. Fillon has played up his religion during the campaign, and that has played well with France's Catholics.

With his coiffed, salt-and-pepper hair and stoic demeanor, Francois Fillon looks like a president out of central casting. The 63-year-old conservative, a former prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, is even serious and prim at his campaign rallies, where his passionate supporters clap and chant his name.

"I'm not asking you to like me, but to support me," he told one crowd at an April 9 rally. "We're not choosing a buddy. We're choosing a president."

Fillon is also a practicing Catholic, and the only presidential candidate who speaks openly about his faith.

"I am a Christian," he told French TV in an interview earlier this year. "Meaning I never make a decision that would be contrary to respecting human dignity or solidarity."

His faith may be one reason he remains a contender in France's presidential election, even though his campaign is dogged by scandal.

In the U.S., presidential candidates are usually forced to profess their Christianity or face the wrath of fundamentalist voters, even though there's supposed to be separation of church and state.

That's not the case in France, which is officially a secular nation and where only a third of citizens identify with a religion, says Pierre Brechon, a professor at political science institute Sciences Po in Grenoble. He's written about religion in public life.

"In 1905, back when religion was at the center of political life, France introduced the law of laicité," the concept of constitutional secularism, Brechon says. "Today, religion is no longer the center of public life ... there are a number of people for whom religion is unfavorable."

But he says religious orientation does still manage to color political views. Catholics, for instance, tend to vote for conservative candidates — and Fillon, as a Catholic himself, appeals to them, Brechon says.

Fillon has 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 74-year-old professor of medicine at the University of Paris, leaves holding palm fronds April 9 to celebrate Palm Sunday. "Faith is what separates us from machines," he says.

Cabanis says that he'd love to hear a fourth word — spirituality — added to the three in the French national motto, and that Fillon is the only candidate who seems comfortable with spirituality.

"I am a Fillon supporter, for reason of liberty," Cabanis says. "I think he's the best guarantee of liberty, equality, fraternity and spirituality."

The professor is not swayed by allegations that don't seem very spiritual at all — that Fillon gave his family fake government jobs that cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of euros.

"I am sure Fillon is not guilty," says Monique Gobert, a grandmother and homemaker who's handing out palm fronds. "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."

Fillon is counting on supporters like these, who see him as responsible and moral, no matter what.

But Delphine Fischer, who sings in the church choir and is actually supporting Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon, says that any sort of Catholic base won't help Fillon win.

"Economic problems, unemployment, security, terrorism — that's what's on people's minds this time," she says. "Spirituality is going to be in second place."

After the service, the Paris subway was packed with well-dressed Fillon supporters, heading to his rally in Paris.

Thousands turned out for the rally, including Emmanuelle de Roquefeuil, a legal assistant at a Catholic school.

"I'm a Christian, so the fact that he is, too, has value for me," she says. "But he also has value far beyond that. He is the most prepared for the job."

Inside the rally, Marie Cerruti, a 31-year-old sales manager, hands out flyers to young Fillon supporters, encouraging them to join the campaign.

She identifies as a Christian but is happy France is a place "where there is a lot of religion, a lot of different kinds of people, and it's beautiful to see."

She says the main reason she's supporting Fillon is because she believes he can make France great again within the European Union.

"In the European Union, it's Germany doing everything, and we want a big place at the table again, too," she says. "(Fillon) can do something for France in Europe."

When Fillon starts speaking, the crowd goes wild. Silim Mourid, a 29-year-old aviation manager with a sweater slung over his shoulders, cheers and chants his candidate's name.

Mourid is Muslim, and says he believes Fillon's sense of sense of Christian values also make the presidential candidate appreciative of other religions.

"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."

Mourid's 26-year-old wife, Nailat Ali, is unconvinced by Fillon's campaign pledges. She wants to keep religion out of politics altogether, and says her choice likely will be hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Jake Cigainero contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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