Illustration by Noah MacMillan
Magazines and newspapers all have stories they run in one form or another, year in, year out. The details may differ, but the stories are largely the same everywhere, striking universal chords of sex, health, and money. A few of these perennials, however, don’t travel. They drill deep into one country’s psyche while everyone else scratches their head and says, “Huh?”
In France, the story that keeps coming back is about Freemasons. It’s everywhere. Most big French magazines run at least one big Freemason cover a year. Books dissect the “state within a state,” to borrow from a recent title. Blogs abound.
“France has several of these marronniers—chestnuts,” says Alain Bauer, former grand master of France’s Grand Orient lodge and president Nicolas Sarkozy’s Masonic liaison. “There’s real estate prices and there’s how to cure headaches, and then there’s Freemasons. The ultimate French magazine story is a Freemason with a headache who’s moving. We don’t like these stories, but at the same time, we love them, because they make us feel like we’re still important.”
Huh? Yes, Freemasons: the old fraternal order known in the U.S. for the Masonic lodges that dot American cities, musty reminders of an era when Masonry stirred the American melting pot. Or for the arcane Masonic symbols engraved on every dollar bill. Or on a sillier note, for the Shriners in their red fezzes. (The Shriners were founded in the 1870s to add a little levity to regular Freemasonry. Mission accomplished.)
In France, though, there’s nothing funny about Freemasons. The way the French see it, Masons are a fifth column at the heart of French society, a cabal of powerful politicians, businessmen, and intellectuals with a hidden agenda that is difficult to pin down because it’s, well, hidden. Nobody knows quite what the Masons are up to, but everybody suspects they’re up to something.
“Freemasons—How they manipulate the candidates,” ran the cover line on the Jan. 10, 2012 issue of L’Express, one of France’s three big newsweeklies. After several readings, the “how” and the “manipulate” parts remain unclear, and even Francois Koch, its author, admits that the headline is “completely exaggerated.” Le Point, the second big newsweekly, followed in its Jan. 26 issue with “Freemasons—the infiltrators.” The third weekly news magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur, got ahead of the game this election cycle: They ran their Masons-and-politics cover last August.
“The subject never fails to generate interest,” says Koch. “It’s the mystery of it that attracts attention.” Koch’s cover story sold 80,000 copies on the newsstand, almost 10 percent more than L’Express’s average of 73,000 copies. “We always get at least average sales, and sometimes sales that are really big. It’s always a gamble worth taking.” Two years ago, Koch, who normally covers criminal justice, launched a blog devoted to Masonic matters.
To understand how French Masons ended up under the national magnifying glass requires a brief side trip through history. Nobody knows precisely where the Freemasons came from, but experts mostly agree their origins lie in the medieval English guilds that laid the stones of the great cathedrals. Modern Masonry dates to the founding of the first Grand Lodge in London in 1717, and today’s United Grand Lodge of England is still a kind of Masonic mothership.
Those first English Masons laid down the loose precepts that govern most Masonic practice. Masons meet regularly to improve themselves morally and spiritually, and to practice brotherly love and mutual assistance. They’re enjoined to believe in a supreme being and to stay out of politics. And no women are allowed. Solidarity is reinforced by an elaborate web of shared mumbo jumbo—signs, symbols, secret handshakes, and code words that are either sexy, absurd, or sinister, depending on who’s looking at them.
Masonry fanned out from England just when the Enlightenment was making the world safe for such Mason-friendly values as anti-clericalism and scientific enquiry. The world’s best and brightest joined in a stampede. Voltaire, John Locke, and Goethe all signed up. In the New World, Benjamin Franklin became America’s favorite Mason.
The early Masons made enemies on all sides. The church branded them anti-Christians, the established political order branded them revolutionaries, and a lot of other people just found them elitist and creepy. This might have been expected. Any international brotherhood with secret handshakes and symbolic jewelry is begging to put its name on a conspiracy theory. The Masons have provoked many, right up to the Nazis, to decimate Masonry on the European continent.
In the U.S., those prejudices coalesced in 1825. A turncoat Mason from New York named Morgan disappeared after threatening to expose his brethren and their rituals. The Masons said they paid him $500 and escorted him to the Canadian border, but he was never heard from again.
The “Morgan Affair” sparked an anti-Mason furor that lasted 25 years, during which 100 anti-Mason newspapers were published and some lodges were looted. The Anti-Masonic Party even ran a candidate for president in 1831—the first third-party movement in U.S. history. Masonic membership dropped from 100,000 to fewer than 40,000. Over time, American Masonry managed to rebuild itself, but it came back as a less secret, less scrappy institution. Today, America’s 1 million Masons are as likely to meet one another at a Masonic barbecue as a Masonic temple. Masons in other countries followed a similar path.
Not the French. In many ways, French Masonry has struck out on its own, ignoring the basic precepts of its Anglo-Saxon brethren and positioning itself as a counterweight to the deeply conservative Catholic and monarchist strains of French society. “Freemasonry has always had a political role in France,” says Pierre Mollier, director of archives at the Grand Orient de France, the country’s largest and most important lodge. “We would never tell people who to vote for, but we’re a moral authority.”
From 1880 to 1905, the Grand Orient battled the Catholic Church for the soul of France, and still considers the Third Republic its stepchild. “The Republican party took its support from the Freemasons—a third of the deputies were Masons,” says Mollier. “All of the Third Republic’s progressive legislation comes from here,” he says, pointing around him at the Grand Orient’s headquarters on the Rue Cadet. “The current presidential candidates all knocked on our door this year. For an English or an American Freemason, that’s just horrible!”
Adding insult to injury, in 1880 the Grand Orient removed all references to the divinity. Freemasons everywhere steer clear of organized religion, and they never talk about God. But they insist on a belief in what Masonic jargon calls the Grand Architect of the Universe, however each member may define it. Phooey, said the French. That’s just religion through the back door.
All this has helped make France’s 160,000 Masons pariahs in the modern Masonic world. The United Grand Lodge of England doesn’t recognize two of the three big French lodges, the Grand Orient and the Grande Loge de France. It recently suspended recognition of the third big lodge, the Grande Loge Nationale Française, but mostly because internal bickering is tearing it apart from within.
“The French take a rather fluid attitude towards what we do,” says John Hamill, director of special projects for the United Grand Lodge of England. Responds Pierre Millier of the Grand Orient: “Do Protestants care if they’re recognized by the Pope? We just turn the other cheek.”
Jean-Claude Zambelli is a French government employee who has lived in the U.S. for 30 years. He first joined an American Masonic lodge in San Francisco. In 1996 he helped re-found the George Washington Union, a lodge patterned after and recognized by the Grand Orient. It is very French. God: no. Women members: yes.
“When we explain this to American Masons, they sometimes recoil physically,” says Zambelli. “It’s just not the same Masonry. They do more charitable work, like the big Shriner hospital in San Francisco. We do a lot more work on ourselves. We’re not a social club. We’re here to progress spiritually. Otherwise, what good is all this? The Americans are proud to be Masons and show you their Mason rings. We find that shocking.”
The French do indeed play their membership cards closer to the vest than other Masons. The heightened intrigue does much to keep them on magazine covers. It also convinces people that the Masons must have something to hide.
Occasionally, they do. Their shadowy networks, no-questions-asked eagerness to help brother Masons, and code of silence has made the lodges a breeding ground for shady business dealing—what the French call affairisme. Membership in French lodges has quadrupled in the past 40 years—an astonishing increase. Recent growth has been fueled by unseemly recruitment drives, principally by the discredited Grande Loge Nationale Française as it battled the Grand Orient for influence. French Masonry was a chicken coop with a sign reading: “Welcome, foxes.”
“We have a hard time defending ourselves against the affairistes, says Jean-Claude Zambelli. “It’s very difficult to show bad faith toward a brother Mason. That has helped various mafia outfits hide behind Masonic networks.”
Sophie Coignard covers the Mason beat at Le Point magazine and wrote the book A State Within A State. “Most of the Masons I know are hyper-honest,” says Coignard. “But it’s also fair to say that in most of the big financial-political scandals of the past 20 years, you’ll find Freemasons.”
Coignard ticks off the Elf-Aquitaine African bribery scandal, the Paris housing projects scandal in the 1990s, and now the Carlton affair—an ongoing investigation of a prostitution ring in Lille. “They’re mostly all Masons,” says Coignard of the Carlton’s ringleaders (Dominique Strauss-Kahn, also embroiled in the Carlton affair, is not a Mason.)
The solution, says journalist and author Eric Giacometti, is for French Masons to come out of the closet. It would help them clean house, and it would take the fun out of trying to peek through the closet keyhole. Giacometti isn’t a Mason, but his fictional creation, detective Christian Marcas, is, and he’s proud to say so. Marcas has appeared in seven detective novels with combined sales of a million copies since 2005. That makes Giacometti and co-author Jacques Ravenne the third-best-selling mystery writers in France.
“We decided to go straight against everything you read in the media when we chose to make Marcas a Freemason,” says Giacometti. “That’s the success of the series. Francois Koch of L’Express says we’re just giving the Freemasons free advertising, but we don’t care. I would tell the Freemasons, ‘Be proud of who you are—there were some extraordinary Freemasons.’ Nobody knows that story!”
Meanwhile, the French presses continue to churn. Sophie Coignard says she’s sniffing around another financial scandal with Masons at its heart. “When it comes to the Masons,” says Coignard, “I’m never at a loss for inspiration.”