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.

Farid Alouache/ Reuters
Faith on display: A woman in Islamic dress shops with her family at a market in Roubaix, France. The nation has wrestled with bans on full facial veils.
Regis Duvignau/ Reuters
Faith on display: A Jehovah's Witness is baptized in Bordeaux, part of an international assembly of tens of thousands of adherents.

Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Cairo had real political effect upon efforts to reconcile US-Muslim griefs – as analyzed by a new and unusual office for religion in the French Foreign Ministry.

"No French president could have given that speech," says Joseph Maila, head of the new Quai d'Orsay religion group. "It was strange from the French point of view. [President] Sarkozy won't talk to 'the Muslim world' or 'the Jewish world.' So we were interested in the goals and ideas of the Americans."

France has long been avowedly secular in public affairs. This continues to be true in its proud diplomatic corps.

But this summer, the Foreign Ministry added the first religion office, located in the policy planning team.

The group is a tacit acknowledgment that faith and religious impulses can no longer be ignored in daily politics among nations – or inside a France whose No. 2 religion is now Islam, and where Buddhist traditions are taking off.

Integrating religion to strategic thinking

As ideologies crumbled after the cold war, religion and identity rushed into the vacuum, according to the French analysis. Religion often substitutes for politics, in this view, and France must move past the days when its chief nod to religion was one diplomat devoted to the Vatican. "We have integrated demographics, the environment, pandemics to our strategic thinking," Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told Le Monde. "Why not religions? All the wars I knew included a religious dimension to various extents."

Mr. Maila, of Lebanese Roman Catholic extraction, ticks off examples where, as he puts it, "our diplomats need to know who is who and what is what": The rise of evangelical Christianity in Africa. Bioethics. The debate over sharia law and universal rights at the Durban II conference on intolerance in Geneva this spring. The Buddhist versus Hindu clashes behind Sri Lanka's conflict.

"The Orthodox patriarch of Russia is talking now of evangelizing Russia; he's used that language," says Maila. "We had the Danish Muhammad cartoons to deal with. Are we going to go to important forums and simply say, 'France is a country that doesn't talk about religion?' No."

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.

"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.

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