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.

Ablerto Pizzoli/Reuters
UNIFIED FRONT: French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave Pope Benedict XVI the red- carpet treatment during his four-day visit.

Pope Benedict XVI's first visit to France is providing President Nicolas Sarkozy another opportunity to fulfill a campaign promise – to rock the boat.

Unlike any French president in decades, Mr. Sarkozy sees a more open role for religion in French society. And he seized upon the conservative German pope's four-day trip to directly challenge French secularism, one of the most prized traditions of La République and a strict legal and cultural sanction against bringing matters of church and faith into the public realm.

Secularism, or laïcité, is central to the modern French identity. It's a result of hundreds of years of efforts to remove the influence of the Roman Catholic church from French institutions and reduce its moral authority. French media don't discuss religion. At offices or work, most French believers don't tell colleagues they are going to mass or church. It is seen as a private matter.

Yet here on Friday Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, broke protocol and met the pope at the airport. They hosted the pontiff at the Élysée Palace, attended a papal talk at a newly restored Cistercian monastery in downtown Paris in front of 700 intellectuals and artists – where Sarkozy openly argued that while secularism is important, it should not be a hostile force that forbids all talk of God, faith, and transcendence. Sarkozy called for a "positive laïcité" that allows religion to help forge an ethical society.

It is "legitimate for democracy and respectful of secularism to have a dialogue with religions," Sarkozy said at the palace with the pope. "That is why I have called for a positive secularism," adding that "It would be madness to ignore [religion.]"

Benedict, for his part, called for a "healthy secularism," stating that "it is fundamental to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring ...."

Sarkozy is almost alone among French politicians in raising the issue of laïcité in a society where the numbers of Catholic churchgoers are in a steep decline. Speaking of the pope's effort to revive interest in Catholicism, and Sarkozy's injection of faith into public discourse, the left-wing daily Libération ran a headline calling it "Mission impossible."

Sarkozy undermining 1905 law?

Critics of the French president say it is not the province of a man elected to uphold the laws of the French republic to talk about God. They say he is violating the basic law of 1905, which came after decades of bitter battles with the Catholic church, that firmly consigns religion to the private sphere. After the comments by Sarkozy and the pope Friday, leading Socialist Party member Julian Dray said that "religion is an individual view in a state that respects religion. The president has to be the guardian of those principles."

Yet this has not stopped the French head of state from routinely shocking France on the subject. Last year, Sarkozy went to the Vatican and eloquently argued for a more robust religious dialogue in France, saying that "a person who believes is a person who hopes, and it's in the interests of the Republic that there be many women and men who nourish hope." In January, he addressed Saudi Arabia's Shura Council (a council of 150 government-appointed advisors to the king), using the word God 14 times – something unheard of by a French president – in a speech arguing for greater understanding of Islam. One French Assembly member said later that she found the word God "not in each paragraph, but in each sentence."

"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."

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.

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