‘La peste ou le choléra’: the plague or cholera. This expression perfectly captures the dilemma of French Catholics at the ballot box this Sunday. In the second round of the presidential election, they must choose between Emmanuel Macron, the candidate of the centre-left party En Marche!, and Marine Le Pen, the right-wing populist candidate.

In the first round, the majority of Catholics did not vote for either Macron or Le Pen. According to the pollster Ifop, 46 per cent of practising Catholics supported François Fillon. In spite of the expenses scandal that engulfed him, the former prime minister was backed by many Catholic activists, mostly on account of his social conservatism. Furthermore, 12 per cent of churchgoers voted for the far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose appeal to social justice attracted Christians, despite his plan to legalise euthanasia.

Neither candidate in the second round meets all the discernment criteria proposed by the French Church, of course. Le Pen, who has temporarily stepped down as head of the Front National, departs from the bishops with her anti-immigration and anti-European Union position and Macron with his social liberalism and radical free-market economics. Catholics are very divided over the relative weight of these matters. The two candidates both have a difficult relationship with Christianity. Macron, a technocrat and former finance minister under outgoing president François Hollande, both intrigues and worries Catholics.

Born into a secularised family in 1977, he was baptised at his own request at 12, when he entered the College de la Providence in Amiens. At this Jesuit-run establishment, he met his French teacher Brigitte Auziere, who later became his wife. He was just 15 and she was 39. Recalling those years, Macron told the Catholic weekly Famille Chrétienne: “I was in touch with the Catholic faith in its intellectual dimension, sometimes more than in its strictly spiritual dimension. I was fascinated by this mixture of intelligence and faith.’’

Since then, the candidate has taken inspiration from what might be called a secularised Christianity, defending migrants and the European Union with the technique of a preacher. “I do not deny the Christic dimension,’’ the former Jesuit pupil has said, acknowledging that he sometimes strikes preacher-like poses during his stump speeches, with his palms open and arms outstretched.

But Macron is also the candidate of a radical social liberalism. He is in favour of retaining same-sex marriage and extending IVF to lesbians couples. He is, however, opposed to legalising surrogacy. Unlike in Britain, this practice is forbidden in France and highly criticised, both by conservative Catholics and, intriguingly, the far left (which sees it as a commodification of women’s bodies). The rejection of surrogacy played a major role in mobilising protesters against gay marriage in 2013. Yet, like the previous Socialist government, Macron wants to continue to recognise the births of children born to surrogate mothers abroad.

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