Has Sarko gone too far praising God, faith and the Saudis?

January 17, 2008

French President Nicolas Sarkozy giving a speech, 17 Jan 2008/Charles PlatiauNicolas Sarkozy’s serial taboo-breaking is getting him into hot water. Anybody following the news these days knows about his roller-coaster love life, which has hurt his popularity ratings in a country where Monsieur le Président is supposed to be more discreet. Now his challenge to France’s laïcitéa word signifying both the separation of church and state and the taboo against bringing religion into public affairs — is provoking a backlash. What especially seems to have got his critics going is the fact that he not only praised religion in a speech in Riyahd on Monday but also counted his Saudi hosts among those Muslims “who struggle against fanaticism and terrorism, those who appeal to the basic values of Islam to combat the fundamentalism that negates them.” The fact he was also trying to sell nuclear power plants and other big-ticket French export items to Muslim countries during the same trip did not go unnoticed in his detractors’ comments.

The issue came up during parliamentary questions in the National Assembly on Wednesday (click here and search for Glavany for the exchange in French). Now criticism is coming in from the left and the right of the political spectrum, as well as in editorials. Jean Bauberot, a professor of the history of laïcité, told the Catholic daily La Croix he was worried that Sarkozy was pursuing a “lay Catholic civil religion” that might define France as a Catholic nation rather than a secular one.

True to form, Sarkozy broke with the presidential tradition of staying above the fray and shot back at his critics in an aside during a speech on Thursday about economic policy: “I know people accuse me of being much too interested in religion … I am not questioning the secular system.”

President Nicolas Sarkozy with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in Riyadh, 14 Jan 2008One of the things that strikes me is that Sarkozy seems to be going beyond not only the normal French politician’s way of talking about faith (i.e. ignoring it) but also the usual comments we hear from American politicians. Some French have said that he’s speaking like an American politician. Sure, we’ve heard some quite clear comments about God and faith from former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee or from Mitt Romney in his “Faith in America” speech. But most U.S. politicians seem to talk about faith without getting too specific about, for example, who God is for them. Being too specific carries with it the risk of pinning yourself down too much and alienating voters who don’t have the same view.

In his Riyadh speech on Monday, Sarkozy talked about “… the one God of the religions of the book … the transcendent God who is in the thoughts and hearts of everyone … God who does not enslave man but free him … God who is the rampart against the enormous pride and folly of mankind … God who, beyond all the difference, never stops sending manking a message of humility and love, a message of peace and fraternity, a message of tolerance and respect…

Do you think Sarkozy, by being so specific in talking about God, goes beyond the kind of civil religion echoed in most U.S. political speeches? We know he likes America (that in itself amounts to breaking a taboo in France!). But is he now going even a step further than most American politicians would?

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