France and India are two countries that proudly proclaim the secular nature of their democracies. The principles of church-state separation and state neutrality towards religion are the same. But somehow the accents were different when French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited India last week. While they both were dealing with the concept called “secularism” in English, it was clear that Sarkozy’s thinking was based on the French word laïcité while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh clearly had the Hindi term dharmanirpekshta in mind.
Nicolas 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 laïcité — a 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.
With an ad slogan like that and a price of only €1.50 ($2.20), the Bible has become a hot seller in France. In the last four months of 2007, French shoppers snapped up 200,000 copies of a new low-cost edition — as many as are usually sold in a year — in hypermarkets, a leading book chain and in religious bookshops. Another 300,000 have been bought in French-speaking Africa, Belgium, Canada and Switzerland.
Nicolas 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.
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:
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.
Since 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.”
As 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?”
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.