Faith, hope and love, Sarko style

Carla Bruni and Nicolas SarkozyNicolas Sarkozy is the president of faith, hope and love. The French elected him in May in the hope of change, which he doesn’t just call le changement (“change”) but la rupture (a “break” with the past). Love? Just take a look at the latest Parisian soap opera starring “President Bling-Bling,” pouting ex-wife Cécilia and new flame Carla Bruni. As for faith, we’ve been reporting and blogging about his plans to remodel laïcité, France’s trademark separation of church and state, and expect more to come this year.

For anyone following issues of faith in France, the bilingual blogger Sébastien Fath is a must-read (along with this blog, of course!). A leading French specialist on evangelical Protestantism, he has been blogging for a while en français at Sébastien Fath, commenting on the news in France, the United States and elsewhere. I’ve just discovered he took a bold leap over the language barrier a few months ago and launched an English-language blog called French Windows. In his latest posts there, he discusses in religion and politics in France and the U.S. and asks whether Sarkozy understands laïcité at all.

Back to the blog — first impressions after a break

Returning to news reporting after two weeks off feels like you’ve been away for two weeks. Returning to blogging after a holiday break feels like you’ve been away for an eternity. So much going on! My colleague Ed Stoddard in Dallas was minding the shop, but he was unexpectedly sent off to report the news from the campaign trail. That gave FaithWorld a very American accent, which was a timely twist given the role of religion in the Iowa vote. It’s back to the view from Paris now — here are some inital comments on recent events concerning religion around the world:

Bhutto’s upcoming bookBenazir Bhutto — The assassinated Pakistani leader will speak from beyond the grave next month when her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West is published. HarperCollins has announced it has brought forward to Feb. 12 the release of the book that Bhutto worked on before returning to Pakistan in October. In a statement, it called the book “a bold, uncompromising vision of hope for the future of not only Pakistan but the Islamic world. Bhutto presents a powerful argument for a reconciliation of Islam with democratic principles, in the face of opposition from Islamic extremists and Western skeptics.”

It will be interesting to see what she has to say about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics, especially after all the praise for her as a modern, secularist Muslim leader in comments after her assassination. Bhutto’s party is politically secularist and she pledged to fight against Islamist militants now challenging the Islamabad government. But let’s not forget that the Taliban emerged during her second stint as prime minister in 1993-1996 and were a key element in Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan at the time. She worked with an Islamist politician close to the Taliban then and now. It was also on her watch that, as historian William Dalrymple put it, Kashmir was turned into “a jihadist playground.” Whether she supported all this, couldn’t oppose the military people behind it or both (that’s my hunch) is something historians will debate long into the future. But it is clear that her record is more complex than some of the eulogies would have it.

When being called “Bagdad” is a handicap

There’s a story unfolding in France that isn’t about religion, but says a lot about the hurdles that residents with a Muslim background here can face. When youths in the poor suburbs complain about discrimination (discussed here in a post about the riots last month), they mention stories like this one to highlight their point.

Counting votes at a French polling stationBagdad Ghezal, 53, is a community activist who has been the local Socialist Party (PS) section leader for the past six years in the Channel fishing port of Etaples. He recently learned the regional PS leadership wanted to “parachute” in a candidate for the mayor’s race in March. The outsider was a 35-year-old énarque (graduate of the elite ENA school of public administration) with the very aristocratic name of Antoine de Rocquigny du Fayel. He lives in Lille, about 150 km away, but has a summer house in Etaples. Ghezal protested that he was first in line and wanted to run, but the regional leadership refused to consider him.

The Etaples PS section held a primary vote and Ghezal trounced de Rocquigny du Fayel 3-to-1. But the regional leadership annulled the result, saying the loser was “more credible” as a candidate. “Why would de Rocquigny du Fayel, who does not live in Etaples, be better than Bagdad who has been an activist here for the past 10 years?” Ghezal asked (Europe 1 audio in French here). “This is clearly discrimination.”

Poll shows how the French see their problems

The Eiffel Tower in ParisSince the purported role of Islam in the recent French riots seems particularly important to some readers outside of France, the results of a new poll just published in the French Catholic weekly La Vie are quite interesting for this blog. The survey is about whether France is losing its national identity. This is a persistent question in a country worried that its international influence and the prestige of its culture and language are fading while globalisation, immigration and Islam are playing a larger role in French life. The survey was conducted on November 28-29, only days after the rioting in a Paris suburb that some readers say should be called “Muslim riots.”

The overall picture the poll gives is one of a country mostly concerned about basic economic and social issues. Its threshold for integration is high and its Catholic tradition colours its view of other religions, despite the widespread secularisation of daily life. There is a minority clearly concerned about Islam. But religion as a general concern ranks low, so it’s not clear whether the roughly 30 percent concerned about immigration and Islam’s compatibility with French values see Muslims as religious believers or a socioeconomic underclass. Most likely it’s both.

The CSA institute gave 1,000 French questions with a list of answers and asked them to mark as many responses as they thought were relevant. The figures indicate the percentage of respondents choosing the response.

Why we don’t call them “Muslim riots” in Paris suburbs

A burning car in Villiers-le Bel, 28 Nob 2007As soon as a riot starts in one of the poor suburbs around Paris, we get emails from readers and see comments on blogs accusing the media of hiding the supposedly key fact about the unrest. That fact, they tell us without providing any proof, is Islam. Why don’t we call this violence “Muslim riots?” they ask. What are we trying to hide by not identifying the rioters as Muslims? Do the MSM have a hidden agenda? Don’t we have the courage to “tell the truth?”

We’ve had rioting this week and the same questions came again. This blog has discussed this issue already in a post last month called “Smoke without fire – there was no Paris intifada in 2005.” That dealt with the 2005 riots in detail. This latest unrest is a good opportunity to explain why we don’t write “Muslim riots” — and ask in return why readers so far from the events are so convinced that we should.

We mention race and religion in Reuters news stories when they are relevant to the event being covered. It would be absurd to write “Presbyterian second baseman XYZ…” in a baseball story. He may be a Presbyterian, but he is not at second base as a Presbyterian, but as a baseball player.

Bioethical dilemmas know no boundaries

Bioethical dilemmas know no boundaries. France found that out this weekend when the daily Libération revealed that a French couple that had used a surrogate mother in the United States had won a long legal battle to be recognised as the parents of the twin girls who resulted from the arrangement. Surrogacy is illegal in France. French officials refused to register the twins as the couple’s daughters, leaving them in a legal limbo for seven years. But an appeals court finally granted their wish, arguing it was in the children’s best interests to recognise the U.S. birth certificates that listed Dominique and Sylvie (their surname was not published) as the parents.

an expectant mother France banned surrogacy in 1994 in the hope of preventing a “rent-a-womb” market from developing. But this option is expressly banned by law only in France, Germany and Italy, according to the association CLARA which campaigns to change the French law. It is legal in other places, including Britain, Canada, Greece, New Zealand and some U.S. states. According to the twins’ father Dominique, between 20 to 40 French couples cross the Atlantic every year to have a child with a surrogate American mother.

Since Sylvie and Dominique were recognised as the twins’ parents in a state where surrogacy is legal, they could not be brought to court for breaking the law there. French courts tried to try them for aiding and abetting a case of surrogacy or violating the civil status of the children, but neither charge led to a conviction, Le Monde reported.

Smoke without fire – there was no “Paris intifada” in 2005

Car burns during riots in Paris suburb Aulnay-sous-Bois, Nov 3, 2005One of the most persistent canards about Islam in France is that Muslim groups played a key role in stoking the three weeks of rioting in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities in late 2005. Stories still regularly pop up on the Internet talking about “Muslim riots” or mentioning that cries of Allah-o-akbar were heard amid all the burning and trashing that went on. These cries, reported in the French press at the time, were taken as a sign the Islamists were behind the unrest. Bloggers coined the term “Paris intifada.” Some talked about “Baghdad-on-the-Seine.” Others were frustrated because the media did not make clear what role religion played in the unrest.

The French television channel France 2 has just broadcast an excellent documentary called Quand la France s’embrase… (When France Flares Up) about the 2005 riots in the suburbs and the 2006 student protests in the centre of many French cities. They interviewed dozens of police, politicians, community leaders and residents. They showed a lot of previously unbroadcast on-the-spot video footage taken on cellphones (sometimes by the rioters themselves). Their conclusion is actually not new. Most journalists covering the riots at the time (myself included) came to same conclusion after some initial confusion caused in part by false statements from politicians who should have known better. But the documentary is an excellent analysis of those confusing days, with new information filling out the story better than anything done before.

Rioters and police face off in Clichy-sous-Bois, Oct. 29, 2005The unrest was spontaneous and hardly organised at all, the documentary concluded. The rioters protested against widespread discrimination, unemployment and the government’s failed integration policies. Many were from North African immigrant families, and therefore from a Muslim background. But religion was not the driving force and Islamists did not organise or stoke the unrest. Some politicians accused Islamists early on in the saga, but this was more a case of clueless suits seeking a scapegoat than solid facts the police observed on the ground, the documentary concluded.

French mosque fund starts work after political delays

President Nicolas Sarkozy at a Paris Grand Mosque iftar dinnerBuilding mosques has become a hot topic this year in several European countries. One of the issues is whether foreign funds, mostly coming in from Middle Eastern states without any official supervision, might be used secretly to build or finance mosques preaching radical Islam.

The French government has come up with an interesting way to handle this problem by creating a semi-official Foundation for Islamic Works. It is meant to take in donations from home or abroad and distribute them among the different organisations in the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). Its books would be open and inspected by the state, ensuring the whole procedure is transparent. This would not stop donors from contributing directly, but it should limit it, officials say.

The foundation was actually announced in March 2005 but political rivalries leading up to last May’s presidential election put it on hold for two years . The foundation’s board has now held its first meeting.

Fact and fiction mix in Paris Pope John Paul II spectacular

If a novelist twists historical facts to fit a plot, we can accept it as poetic license. When Dan Brown has the dashing “symbologist” Robert Langdon race to the American Embassy in the wrong part of Paris, we might shrug and say it’s a mistake but The Da Vinci Code is a thriller anyway. But what should we say when a major theatre production mixes fact and fiction in the life of the late Pope John Paul II so much that it misrepresents history? Is that just a little white lie? Or maybe something more?

This has been on my mind since seeing “N’Ayez Pas Peur” (Be Not Afraid) a few days ago. This latest spectacular by the French impresario Robert Hossein is a theater version of the life of the Polish pope. It opened in late September in Paris and will run until early November. Spread out across the wide stage of the Palais des Sports, the play sweeps through the eventful life of Karol Wojtyla at a quick and entertaining pace. We see him as a forced labourer in Nazi-occupied Poland, a young priest out hiking with students, at his election as pope and then on his many journeys around the world.

Hossein is a veteran showman, with two shows on the life of Jesus and one each on Ben Hur and Charles de Gaulle to his credit. Some of the scenes are wonderful. There’s a re-enactment of the 1978 conclave where Hossein takes some liberties with the rituals. On the stage, some cardinals stand up and give speeches for Wojtyla, something that is strictly banned under Vatican rules. But Hossein makes up for it by using a huge reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel as the stage backdrop.