Man and God in France

Article excerpt

NICOLAS SARKOZY. La Republique, les religions, l'esperance. EDITIONS DU CERF. 172 PAGES. [euro]17.

IN THIS LAST American election cycle, political observers noted a significant gap between the ways in which George W. Bush and John Kerry approached the delicate matter of politics and religion. Bush was comfortable proclaiming his faith as an integral, if not the most essential, aspect of his life. Kerry, on the other hand, was considerably more reticent. Much of his rhetoric seemed to suggest that American politics is simply a secular affair, in which all political claims derived from religious teaching are prima facie illegitimate, because values cannot or should not be imposed on others who do not share them. These two Americans are poles apart regarding the manner in which they discuss religion and politics, and their disparity highlights the increasing differences with which American conservatives and American liberals and most Europeans view the role of religion in public life.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Nicolas Sarkozy, formerly France's interior minister and minister of finance, who was recently overwhelmingly elected as leader of France's major center-right political party, is causing a stir with his singular understanding of this question. His new book, La Republique, les religions, l'esperance (The Republic, religions, and hope), is being touted as a quasi-revolutionary document that seeks to redefine relations between religion and politics in France. In it he unveils his "personal sentiments," the result of his experience in political life, condensed and revealed in a series of interviews. Most Americans, plagued either by a Francophilia that wants to enlist France's muscular military forces and diplomatic finesse in the war against terrorism, or a Francophobia that condemns France, its history, and all it has ever produced as a spineless and subversive menace beyond any hope of rapprochement, don't seem to be noticing. Few Americans even attempt to steer a via media toward a more measured (one hesitates to say "nuanced") understanding of the proper relationship between America and France, or to appreciate potential friends among the allegedly homogeneously oppositional French.

A protege of Jacques Chirac in the 1970s, Nicolas Sarkozy is an unabashedly ambitious politician who is currently Chirac's most feared rival, and is positioning himself to capture the French presidency in 2007. A deal was struck in early September 2004 between Chirac and Sarkozy that would allow Sarkozy to run for head of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), Chirac's moderate conservative party, if he promised to resign as minister of finance in November. Now Sarkozy is head of the UMP, a potential springboard to the presidency.

IT MIGHT SEEM strange that a former finance minister who managed the important though relatively prosaic job of trying to spur France's perennially flagging economy would now be in the national spotlight for raising the question of religion and politics in France. But as minister of the interior, Sarkozy has increased police presence in Muslim neighborhoods and worked energetically and optimistically with the recently formed French Council on the Muslim Religion (CFCM) and its Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF) in the hope of dissuading Muslim leaders from embracing extremist politics and integrating them into democratic processes. By appealing to, and indeed clearly appreciating, religious believers in national life, "Sarko" seems to be breathing new life into demons long thought dead and fanning the flames of spirits that haven't yet been killed. France's elites are not taking kindly to his ideas: In an interview in L'Express, he was told that his book was "disturbing," and he was derided for his "offensive manner."

France's religious demons were supposed to have been exorcized with the enactment in 1905 of a law forbidding state funding of religion. …