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Sarkozy and God

Patrice de Beer
6 February 2008

The French president elected in May 2007 might not have changed his country as much as he and his supporters (at home or abroad) hoped or as much as his opponents feared. But Nicolas Sarkozy's craving for "rupture" with a past he regards as demonic - one, moreover, that can seem to stretch back far beyond the conservative ogre-year of 1968 to that of the 1789 French revolution itself - is undiminished. Now, Sarkozy's ambitious desire to redress the flaws of his nation's predecessors has become especially blatant in two areas: the pipolisation of politics (to use the inventive new French word), epitomised by his highly publicised "liaison" - and subsequent marriage - with Italian singer and former model Carla Bruni); and the role of religion in the life of a country which has lived secularism as a dogma since the law establishing "separation of church and state" in 1905.

Sarkozy's whirlwind romance may be a recent development, but the same cannot be said of his interest in religion. When he was interior minister, he published a book on the topic (La République, les religions, l’espérance [Republic, Religion, Hope], 2004), and played a crucial role in establishing the Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman (the National Council of the Muslim Faith [CNCM]), a body designed to represent an Islam a la Francaise in the interests of containing fundamentalism and terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

Among Patrice de Beer's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"France's telepolitics: showbiz, populism, reality"
(2 April 2007)

"Sarkozy's rightwing revolution"
(8 May 2007)

Le Monde's democratic coup"
(30 May 2007)

A not so quiet American
"
(13 July 2007)

Nicholas Sarkozy, rupture and ouverture"
(31 July 2007) "

The French temptation
"
(31 August 2007)

"Nicolas Sarkozy's world"
(10 October 2007)

Nicolas Sarkozy's striking test
"
(29 November 2007)

"Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom"
(16 January 2008)

A beatific vision

More widely, Sarkozy has long preached the message of a larger place for religious "forces" in society and in state affairs. This idea always touches a raw nerve in a secular society groomed by ideas from the "age of Enlightenment" and its leading figures from Diderot and Voltaire to Victor Hugo and Jean-Paul Sartre; even a significant number of France's Roman Catholics (less than 20% of whom practice their faith) share the worries of many of their compatriots.

A passage in Sarkozy's book expresses his argument: "I am convinced that religious spirit and practice can contribute to appeasing and regulating a free society (...) One would be wrong to limit the church's role to spirituality".

It is evident that this is a highly sensitive issue in a contemporary Europe where so many countries are grappling with the public presence, face, and agency of religion in many areas of life (law, education, employment, gender roles, security, and Europe's own constitutional foundations). But Sarkozy is undeterred, and has made his theme a centrepiece of his public statements during two official visits to highly symbolic destinations: the Vatican and Saudi Arabia.

In December 2007 in Rome, the president made a statement that was as emphatic as it was anathema to a majority of French people:

"France's roots are essentially Christian...A man who believes (in God) is a man filled with hope. And it is in the Republic's interest that there should be many believers. Gradual emptying of rural parishes, spiritual desertification of suburbs, vanishing of (religious sponsored) youth clubs or shortage of priests have not made the French happier. The school teacher will never replace the priest or the minister when it comes to passing down values or learning the differences between Good and Evil."

In January in Riyadh, Sarkozy went even further. After castigating fanaticism as a perversion of religion and quoting the word "God" a dozen times - something unheard of for a French leader - he added: "I don't know of any country whose heritage, culture and civilisation are not based on religious roots. It is from religion...that we first learned the principles of universal morals, the universal idea of human dignity".

He went on to praise the moderation and wisdom of Saudi Arabia's rigid brand of Islam: "Regarding the condition of women and freedom of expression, Saudi Arabia has also taken action, slowly, it is true". Whether or not Sarkozy's motives here included a desire to please King Abdullah (whose support he needs in fighting Islamic terrorism and boosting French exports and jobs in a dire economic situation), it is rare indeed that Riyadh is lauded for its human-rights policy.

France's law of 1905 effectively carved secularism into constitutional stone. The result was to defuse tensions and passions that had bubbled for decades, and lay the foundation of a new settlement where la paix scolaire between the state and religious schools became a broadly accepted fact, and where religions and clerics (from majority Catholics to minority Protestants, Jews and Muslims - their fundamentalist currents excepted) have abided by the separation of church and state. All heads of state and government have hitherto avoided any hint of what could look like reopening old wounds (see Johannes Willms, "France unveiled: making Muslims into citizens?", 26 February 2004).

In this context, Sarkozy's vision of religion represents a clear break from a century-old consensus. It appears much closer to that of American Christian fundamentalists for whom God is at the heart of society, than to a French public whose day-to-day priorities are both much more mundane and lacking in evident enthusiasm for a resurgence of visible faith. It is also somewhat at odds with the private character of a man who has been twice divorced, and is not known as a strict churchgoer nor bound by traditional morals.

It is unsurprising then that Sarkozy's imaginary model of a quasi-philosophical, almost "structural" partnership between God and Caesar has upset many. There is a suspicion that this consummate and calculating politician is using his writings and speeches with the agenda not simply of wooing "Christian" voters (or those who can be persuaded to identify with such an appeal) but of using religion for political purposes.

In his book, Sarkozy wrote that "it would be wrong to limit the Church's role to its spiritual aspects...Finally, hope in a better hereafter is a factor of appeasement and comforting in today's life" as "republican morals can't answer all questions or satisfy all expectations". The historian and sociologist Jean Baubérot, himself a Protestant as well as a longstanding critic of extreme strains of secularism, retorted in the daily newspaper Libération that the self-proclaimed "postmodernist" president was using faith "in favour of a neo- clerical effort to re-link religion and politics, and for the instrumentalisation of religion by politicians".

Into the mystic

Sarkozy's vision of a renovated French society regulated by religion is said to be influenced by his close adviser and speechwriter Henri Guaino. Guaino has been accused (by philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, among others) of being inspired by the ultra-conservative writer Charles Maurras (1868-1952), who in the 1930s advocated a France ruled by a powerful monarch and guided by nationalism, tradition and an alliance between church and state - before becoming a collaborator with the Nazis during the second world war. In some speeches, Sarkozy's phraseology is reminiscent of the Maurrassian imaginary; the opposition of the pays reel (real country) based on old national and ethnic values to the pays virtuel (virtual country, i.e. institutional France, called by Maurras the pays légal) is but one.

In praising France's Christian past, Sarkozy lyrically adds: "It was a mistake to turn our back to our past and renege, in a way, on our obvious roots. Don't tell me that we are contesting secularism. You just have to fly over France to see this long mantle of churches!"

The new faith strategy - or tactical turn - has, of course, angered the French left. It has also baffled a public opinion already disoriented by so many different presidential réformes or ruptures that they are at pains to understand its logic as well as to reconcile their president's glitzy private life with his religious aspirations. Moreover, if this has pleased some clerics - most prominently the conservative archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois - it has also shocked those who appreciate the still-current benefits of the 1905 bill and who fear a new "war of the two Frances" if it were to be modified.

Bishop Claude Dagens, for example, is quoted as saying that "religions are not auxiliary political forces, they are vital references". His colleague Bishop Gérard Defois feels that the "protest" dimension of the "word of God" is too often misunderstood. Some Franciscan monks are holding regular prayers meetings in the main square of Toulouse to protest against a phenomenon that can be viewed in the context of Sarkozy's hardline rhetoric, namely the mistreatment by police of illegal immigrants. Christian Democrat MP and former centrist presidential candidate François Bayrou, meanwhile, has sternly warned of the consequences of revising a century-old settlement for no good purpose, and reopening Pandora's box.

Yet the Elysée palace is indeed preparing a revamp of the 1905 bill in favour of what Sarkozy calls a "positive secularism" that is opposed to "fanaticism". This might well be a crucial question for the president; but in a de-Christianised society where more and more people don't even know what thousand-year old religious symbols mean, his messianic message could well miss its target. This is a leader who, after all, announced that he would retire for a few days in a monastery to meditate after his election, and then chose instead to go on a luxury cruise aboard a yacht belonging to a billionaire friend; and who has now been nicknamed "president bling-bling" for his glitzy style. Is Nicholas Sarkozy the man to teach the French anew about God? It is all - use an old French word - somewhat bizarre.

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