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With pope's visit, Sarkozy challenges French secularism

French politicians don't talk about faith openly. But President Sarkozy wants a more open discussion of the role of religion.

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"We have to watch Nicolas Sarkozy when he travels," said the French magazine Marianne. "Outside our borders, our president can reveal himself to be a passionate missionary for Christ.... Traveling in Arab lands, [he] transformed himself into a fanatical zealot for Islam."

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Yet political insiders say Sarkozy is calculating that he will be able to change at least the terms of public expression in France – if not the deeper roots of laïcité, which include the status of churches and religious exercise. Sarkozy is appealing to conservative Catholics, 70 percent of whom voted for him. He is addressing a postsecular generation in the West, where ideas of transcendence, of a spiritual dimension to life, are widely discussed in everything from New Age seminars to the Internet and popular film. He is also speaking to a growing Muslim population in France that is unashamedly willing to wear its faith on its sleeve – or in covering its head.

Who teaches values?

More controversial are Sarkozy statements that teachers aren't as important as priests in the transmission of values – since many of the religious wars in France in the late 19th century were between the church and public schools.

Still, it is an uphill battle for the president. The 1905 law is popular, almost sacred, here. Churches and communities of faith understand they should not discuss, let alone promote, faith. French city and town officials, media groups, and schools, strictly adhere to the laïcité concept. Subway advertisements for the recent opening of the Catholic center in downtown Paris, for example, where the pope spoke on Friday, did not mention that the center, designed as a place of cultural outreach, was Catholic. "If we mentioned that it was Catholic, no one would come," says a staff member who requested anonymity.

Yet while cultural strictures on talking or expressing faith may be strong, French courts are increasingly dealing with the accommodation of religious practice – mostly in cases of Muslim marriage and divorce, dress in public places, and other issues. As interior minister, Sarkozy helped create a Muslim council in France, to go along with similar groups among Protestants and Jews. In a current divorce case in Lille, a Muslim man is attempting to divorce his wife based on a claim that she was not a virgin when she was married.

Under laïcité, the legal status of churches and communities of faith are in a grey zone. The French assembly has issued two reports describing some 172 "cults" in France that are not allowed status as religious communities – causing anger and cries of injustice. particularly among Jehovah's Witness members, who were recently taken off the cult list. (Others on the list include the Plymouth Brethren; Soka Gakkai, the largest Buddhist group in the world; the Scientology church; and numerous small evangelical groups.)

The papal visit here, which included a mass attended by more than 200,000 on Saturday, and a visit to Lourdes, site of Catholic pilgrimages, ends Monday. It's billed as an opportunity for the French to meet the pope. The Catholic church has significant clout inside states like Poland, Spain, and Italy. Germans are proud of the German-born pope, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger. But in France, he has been something of an enigma, following the relative popularity of the more liberal Pope John Paul II.