Secular France gives religion a seat at the political table
The opening of a Foreign Ministry office for religion signals a rising awareness of the political clout of the world's faiths.
(Page 2 of 2)
Before becoming foreign minister, Mr. Kouchner helped address wars in Kosovo, Sri Lanka, and Lebanon – all of which had ethnic and religious underpinnings that provided grist for hatreds and violence, even if these elements were often manipulated by political or religious leaders.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"This is a reflection on the way the world really is today," says François Heisbourg, a special adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "You have people like George Bush and [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad who take their religion very seriously, and we have to deal with that. Most countries are not like Western Europe."
Maila says Obama's Cairo speech had "political meaning and religious content…. Obama went deeply into the Muslim sense of the world, offered respect. It wasn't a policy, but a prologue to a policy."
The French religion group, which is expected to grow, will not promote or advocate faith, but study it, make recommendations, and provide diplomatic training. "We aren't training diplomats to be priests," Maila says. "But our diplomats on the ground need answers."
"Secularism, as a tradition, doesn't hold in the rest of the world, and this is a new innovation under Kouchner and [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy," says a Western diplomat who could not be named. "A lot depends on how it rolls out."
Christophe Jaffrelot, a leading French writer on religious nationalism, gives Mr. Sarkozy credit for pushing the idea that France "can't remain purely a secular republic … you have to have some accommodations for religion." In the diplomatic sphere, he says, "You can't understand the elections in Lebanon or pacify the Balkans without an awareness of religious communities. There are more and more religious lobbies to deal with, including in the US."
A French paradox
"How does a secular country speak to a religious state?" asks Pierre Hassner, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris. "The particular French paradox is that this comes in the midst of the discourse about the [Muslim] veil [and whether it is welcome in France].… The French have been so pro-secular that they are often branded anti-Muslim, which isn't correct either."
Along with religious patterns, the group will look at the effect of its own decisions on religion – including a highly charged prosecution of Scientologists in France for fraud. A ruling is expected in October.