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
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. …