“Sarko the American” does Godtalk French-style

December 22, 2007

President Sarkozy attends a ceremony at Saint John Lateran Basilica in Rome, 20 Dec 2007Nicolas Sarkozy likes to talk about religion in public life, even though many French don’t think it has any role there. He never misses the opportunity to tell religious leaders how important faith is as a moral guide for modern societies. Every now and then, he goes public with it in a provocative way. He could not have been more provocative than he was on Thursday when he met Pope Benedict XVI and was inducted as the honorary canon of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran (a centuries-old tradition for French heads of state). He delivered a long speech praising faith’s role in public life and urging believers in general and Catholics in particular to play a more active role in French public debates.

“There has probably never been a French president who defended his country’s Catholic heritage so vigorously,” the French Catholic daily La Croix wrote approvingly.

We’ve covered the visit and done a story on the reactions in France (which continued to roll in after our story ran). One typical reaction was Le Monde‘s front-page cartoon showing Sarkozy dressed as a bishop while George Bush, who has a cross and a U.S. flag with crosses instead of stars), tells Pope Benedict “I think this guy’s stealing my job.” The French almost instinctively contrast their reticence about bringing religion into politics to the way U.S. politicians display and debate their faith in public.

Nicolas Sarkozy visits Muslim leaders at the Paris Grand Mosque, 5 Oct 2002.But just as Sarko l’americain — as his critics call him — is not really all that American in his policies, he is not all that American in his “Godtalk” either. He discusses the role of religion in public life in a broad sociological and political manner, as one of several possible stabilising elements in modern societies swept up in rapid change. It’s clear in his approach to Islam, for example, that he mostly wants moderate imams to help calm the poor suburbs by giving Muslim youths there a sense of purpose and direction in their lives. The details are not as important as the result. He wants results (which also strikes the French as very American).

Sarkozy rarely gets specific about religion, though. It’s not about this or that reading of Scripture, not about rejecting evolution or wondering whether someone is Christian or Muslim or Jewish enough to be acceptable. It’s certainly not about divine inspiration for any policy. His is a more philosophical approach. “A person who believes is a person who hopes. The republic has an interest in having many men and women who hope,” he said in his speech.

President Sarkozy attends funeral services for Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, 10 Aug 2007The president is also reluctant to speak about his personal views. While he says he is a Catholic “by tradition and in my heart” (as he told Vatican Radio), he is twice divorced, rarely attends Mass and has drawn criticism from Catholic bishops for cracking down on immigration and liberalising Sunday shopping laws. But that didn’t stop him from attending Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger’s funeral in Notre Dame or going to the bishops’ conference reception to congratulate the current archbishop of Paris, André Vingt-Trois, on being named a cardinal.

Still, Sarkozy is the most faith-friendly president to come along in France in a long time, so religious leaders aren’t complaining . But they are waiting to see if he puts his rhetoric into action.


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I would expected some comments about Mr Sarkozy’s address pertinency. In your vision, is it true of false what he said?

Posted by João Simoncello Filho | Report as abusive

I’m not exactly sure what you are asking. If it is whether France has Christian roots, a visit to any city and a tour through its cathedral will answer that in the affirmative. By saying this, Sarkozy is simply stating a fact of French history. The dispute is whether this should be said so clearly. Some French, especially but not exclusively on the left, do not want it said like that, because they think this leads to assumptions for present-day politics. But stating a fact from history does not necessarily mean today’s politicians have to reflect it in policy. Sarkozy states this fact, but he is not planning to ban abortion or divorce (especially not that!) or other things that the Catholic Church opposes.

His comments to the bishops about the contributions that religion and hope can make to a society are of the same order. They are statements that are friendly to the churches, without being backed up by plans to impose the churches’ agenda. Given France’s history of anti-clericalism, making friendly statements about religion has a political connotation. But kind words mean little if they’re not backed up by hard facts.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive