Sarkozy Ignites Church and State Debate

Being an Honorary Canon of The Basilica of Saint John of Lateran is an honor enjoyed by French leaders since Henri IV. Most don't care much (Presidents François Mitterrand and Georges Pompidou skipped the trip to Rome altogether). Not so current President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been gaining a reputation as France's chief sermonizer. Last December, as he received his title, he made a long speech to the gathered clerics, expounding on "France's essentially Christian roots."

"A man who believes is a man who hopes," said the president. "And the interest of the republic is that there be a lot of men and women who hope." He advocated a new "positive secularism" that "doesn't consider religions a danger, but an asset." And he declared, "In the transmission of values and in the teaching of the difference between good and evil, the schoolteacher will never be able to replace the priest or the pastor."

Those are fighting words in strictly secular France. Suddenly, faith, once an entirely private affair, has infused the president's political discourse. In Riyadh on Jan. 14, Sarkozy referenced the Lord 13 times in a speech to Saudi Arabia's Consultative Council, evoking a "transcendent God who is in the thoughts and the heart of every man." That was news to France's estimated 15 million atheists and agnostics, a quarter of the country.

The revival has touched a nerve among a large swath of the French population. Polled online, 73 percent disagreed with Sarkozy's pronouncement on school-teachers versus pastors. Last week 60 unions, teachers' associations and others launched a Web petition arguing that Sarkozy, "in mixing personal convictions and his presidential function, undermines the secularism of the republic." The petition drew 20,000 signatures in its first four days. Politicians are fanning the flames. Centrist leader François Bayrou, himself a devout Roman Catholic, forewarned that challenging secularism in France would open a Pandora's box of latent problems. Socialist leader François Hollande accused Sarkozy of using religion to sell nuclear energy to Muslim countries.

Sarkozy's take is simply that they are out of touch. He told diplomats in Paris last month that the two most important challenges facing society in the 21st century are climate change and "the conditions of the return of the religious in most of our societies." Last month, he declared to his UMP Party and visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel that it was "a mistake" to withdraw the reference to "Europe's Christian roots" from the European Constitution.

While this talk is new from a French president, it isn't new from Sarkozy. His Rome speech echoes his 2004 book "The Republic, Religions, Hope." Although he himself is a Catholic, Sarkozy has been more vocally supportive of all faiths than most of his predecessors. His maternal grandfather was Jewish, and his support of Israel marks another shift for a French leader. As Interior minister, he was also charged with religious affairs. His most controversial move at that post was including the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, with its reputed ties to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, in the French Council for the Muslim Religion.

Sarkozy's rhetoric is reopening deep wounds. As French secularism historian Jean Baubérot notes, "The battle between the priest and the schoolteacher lasted centuries! Sure, in another country, that point would be much less important. But in France, it resuscitates a battle that only ended decades ago." The law separating church and state dates to 1905. Since French secularism evolved to counter the dominance of a single Catholic Church, he explains, the secular sensibility in France is less relaxed than in the United States, where diverse Protestant churches have historically coexisted. In France, state evocations of God still come off as partisan.

From a distance, the French view the trappings of American civil religion as quirky, at best. A Le Monde book review recently mused about "In God We Trust," the greenback dictum: "When we read this profession of faith, printed on American dollars, we feel a curious sentiment of eeriness, of exoticism, of amazement. That a modern people, active and enterprising, officially proclaims its trust in God on its bank notes is enough to disconcert the French." For some commentators, Sarkozy brings "Anglo-Saxon" secularism too close to home.

And some staunch secularists view a rollback of France's strict separation of politics and religion as dangerous. Caroline Fourest, author of "Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan," fears a return to religion as the opiate of the people "to mask disengagement from social policy." In his book, Sarkozy promoted religion as a "pacifying factor" in France's bleak banlieues (later made world-famous after fiery riots by angry youths, some the sons of non-Christian immigrant families). Again in Rome in December, he called the banlieues "religious deserts." Indeed, Fourest contends, as Interior minister, Sarkozy's vision was "formed in a spirit of security. He really considers that promoting religion in rough neighborhoods is a way to calm young people. The exchange is a drop in delinquency for a rise in fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is less damaging politically, apparently." Committed, strictly secular public policy is the best medicine, she says. "It really isn't the moment, in the current context of post-9/11 and the general rise of fundamentalism, to play at killing that antidote," says Fourest.

But what will Sarkozy's homilies really mean for policy? It's not yet clear. In Rome, he held that "it isn't about modifying the great equilibriums" of French secularist law. And his Interior minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, who has commissioned a working group, has been careful to specify that changes to century-old legislation would be no more than housekeeping. "Since the 1905 law, society has changed," she told La Croix newspaper. Cemeteries, for one, are today running out of room for Jews and Muslims who wish to be buried among others of their faith. But current legislation prohibits the state from ruling on sectarian cemetery quarters, a practical problem that needs solving and that local authorities can't handle alone. Alliot-Marie says, "It is out of the question that we reopen quarrels that profoundly divided our country." But it may be too late for that. If no paradigm shift is planned, Sarkozy's unorthodox oratory seems an indulgence too far. No wonder his precursors passed on the pulpit.