Saturday, 31 August 2013

Another French Oxymoron?

Over the summer, I was a guest at an event that I suspect could only happen in France, or, at least, an event that requires that typically French ability to represent what seem to be total contradictions as entirely logical: we were guests at a civil baptism.

I describe this ceremony as contradictory, because a baptism, by definition, is a Christian ceremony. I don't mean that people can't or shouldn't have non-religious ceremonies around the birth or naming of a baby, just that I find it odd that the vehemently secular French state has no problem with appropriating this word for something which is not religious at all.

The second reason why civil baptisms are contradictory is that they take place in the mairie and are led by an elected official, but have no legal significance whatsoever.

For those of you who have never heard of them (and most of the French people I've mentioned it to hadn't), here's a brief description:

A baptême civil is officially known as le parrainage civil (Parrain/marraine means Godfather/Godmother or sponsor). Nonetheless, the word baptême was used repeatedly during the ceremony, which dates from the time of the French Revolution. During the ceremony, the parents acknowledge that if anything happens to them (the word used here is "disparition", which I found a bit odd), their child will be placed in the care of the state, as is, in fact, the case anyway, whether they acknowledge it or not. The not-Godparents then sign a document agreeing to bring up the child according to their parents' values, but this doesn't legally commit them to anything and is described as a purely moral engagement. At the one we went to, the children were then given a commemorative medal, then we all went back to the house for lunch.

When I first heard about civil baptism, I was pretty sceptical, but I wanted to go with an open mind. Mostly, I was doubtful about a ceremony with so little practical significance. Unlike a civil wedding, which alters the legal status of the couple, or a religious baptism, where the child becomes part of the church, a civil baptism changes nothing. I suppose the actual civil equivalent of church baptism is registering a baby's birth, but nobody has a big party for that. The concept seemed to me to have been invented at best to replace something which can't really be replaced, and at worst to make an political point.

The way that the ceremony we attended was conducted did nothing to assuage these doubts. The lady from the mairie talked at length about the revolutionary origins of civil baptism and about the importance of bringing up the child according to the valeurs de la République. So there was a bit about liberté, égalité, fraternité, an awful lot about the secular state, and almost nothing about the children themselves, or their wellbeing, with the result that the speech was more political polemic than anything else.

The part that I felt was much more meaningful came well after we had left the mairie, in our friends' garden. The mother gave a beautiful and moving speech about why they had chosen these particular people to be parrain and marraine and about the values they hoped that they would pass on to their child, then the parrain and marraine gave the child a little gift.

So did I leave with a deeper appreciation of this apparently contradictory event? Well, sort of. On the one hand, I completely understand the parents' desire to commemorate and celebrate the very special task that their dear friends had agreed to undertake for their children. But on the other, psuedo-legal aspect of the part at the mairie felt very forced, and the official's discourse not totally appropriate for the occasion, and I couldn't help thinking it would have felt just as special if it had just been the heartfelt speeches and the little exchange of gifts in the back garden.


  1. How interesting! I knew about them, but don't know anyone who has had one. I remember learning about this in my French classes in Rennes, ie that they started after the Revolution, when they were trying to limit the power of the Catholic Church. The French people had a hard time giving up the religious ceremonies, so the government had to come up with their own ceremonies to replace them.

    This is also where the origin of the Marianne came from - her bust was used to replace the statue of Mary in all city halls, and she was supposed to represent la gloire de la République and all that jazz.

    1. I didn't know that about Marianne. Is her name a not-so-subtle link to the original Mary then?

    2. Yep, it is totally a rip-off of Mary! Nowadays they often choose famous movies stars to "update" the busts, ie Catherine Deneuve or Laetitia Casta.

  2. My husband did the photography for a wedding + civil baptism for a couple who already had a small child when they got married, but that would be the only child I've heard of who's had the civil baptism (others were religious). It's clearly one of those "Look, magic fingers and poof this is not religious anymore!" like having bank holidays for the Assumption of Mary and Pentecost. Like Sam says, it was created at a time of conflict between religious and secular forces in France, and it's a weird invented ceremony so people don't feel like they're giving up traditions.

  3. I had never heard of such thing and I am French! Weird. I like the symbol of having a godmother/godfather (even though I'm an atheist) but I'm not sure I would go through these official steps.

  4. That's exactly what I thought. Also,the stuff about bringing up the child to believe in the values of the Republique made the French state sound a bit like some kind of cult. It was all a bit bizarre.

  5. "... that typically French ability to represent what seem to be total contradictions as entirely logical." So true, and what a succinct way to put it. This is the first I've heard of a civil baptism as well. If the ceremony itself changes nothing, why not just have an informal gathering to commemorate the baby's birth and the choice of godparents?