With Pope's Visit, Sarkozy Challenges French Secularism

Article excerpt

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 Republique and a strict legal and cultural sanction against bringing matters of church and faith into the public realm.

Secularism, or laiecite, 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 Elysee 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 laiecite" 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 laiecite 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 Liberation 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. …