We’ve had several news stories and blog posts about President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to modify France’s policy of laïcité, that almost untranslatable term for secularism. The focus in the discussion here is usually on what that would mean for Muslims and Christians. But what about Sarkozy and France’s Jews? Before I got the chance to look into that, my former Reuters colleague Bernard Edinger produced a very informative piece on this for the Jerusalem Report . I’ll let him tell the story right here.
Karen Armstrong, the best-selling British writer and lecturer on religion, has given a long interview to Reuters in Islamabad after addressing a conference in the Pakistani capital. A former Catholic nun who now describes herself as a “freelance monotheist,” she has written 21 books on the main world religions, religious fundamentalism in these faiths and religious leaders such as Mohammad and Buddha. Her latest book is The Bible: A Biography. The short version of what she said is in the Reuters story linked here. We don’t publish the Q&A text of our interviews on our news wire, but we can do it here on the blog.
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.
Nicolas Sarkozy does not do things by half. After being criticised for highlighting his country’s Christian roots during a speech in Rome last month, the French president went a step further in a speech in Riyadh on Monday. He praised “the transcendent God who is in the thoughts and the hearts of every person” and described Islam as “one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has known.” Addressing Saudi Arabia’s Shura advisory council, he stressed he was speaking of “the one God of the people of the book … God who does not enslave man but frees him“.
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.
Nicolas 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.
The Economist, which printed God’s obituary in its millennium issue, has produced a long and very interesting survey on religion and politics around the world in its latest issue. There’s also an editorial on the separation of church and state and an audio interview with the author John Micklethwait.