Last winter, after being made an honorary canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a faux pas that sent shivers down Gallic spines: he talked about the role of God in French society.
In France, of course, Church and state are strictly separate. One of the linchpins of French society is the 1905 law stipulating that the state neither recognizes nor funds any particular religion. Traditionally, French presidents kept their religious beliefs to themselves. They would not take Communion in public and avoided openly discussing matters of faith.
But Sarkozy is cut from a different cloth from that of his presidential forbears. The son of a Hungarian immigrant, Sarkozy didn’t attend the country’s top political schools and was elected to the presidency on a platform of change. Nothing was out of bounds, it seemed, the 1905 law included.
During the speech at the Basilica of St. John Lateran last December 20, his message was clear: France and Christianity are inextricably intertwined and religion has a crucial role to play in the French Republic. “A man who believes is a man who hopes,” Sarkozy said. “It is in the interest of the Republic that there are a lot of men and women who believe.”
This message was reinforced a month later in front of the Saudi Arabian Consultative Council in Riyadh. In a speech that almost read like a sermon, he reiterated this civilizing mission and mentioned the word “God” 13 times.
As the appointed defender of French secularism, Sarkozy’s lurch toward the pulpit proved too much for some politicians to stomach. As Socialist Party member Jean Glavany told the Reuters news agency, “A speech citing God not only on every page, but on every line, creates a fundamental problem for the Republic.”
Now six months later, France’s hardened secularists are resting more easily. Following an economic slowdown, Sarkozy’s opinion ratings have collapsed. He conceded during a recent interview with the newspaper Le Figaro that he has “to be careful not to re-ignite a war that France really does not need.” Massive reform is not in the cards, at least not for now.
It is perhaps bizarre that the man looking to bridge the divide between Church and state is twice divorced and has a sporadic church attendance record and a taste for the high life.
As far as Catholicism is concerned, it is unclear whether Sarkozy’s rapprochement to the Church is a political ploy to gain support from France’s 38 million Catholics or whether he is spurred on by genuine religious belief. What is certain is that Sarkozy’s interest in religion, and Catholicism in particular, dates back a long time.
Sarkozy insists that he is a Catholic. During an interview with Vatican Radio last December, Sarkozy claimed he is a “Catholic both in tradition and at heart.” The French leader, whose mother was born to a Jewish family, attended a Catholic school and received his first Communion. When he became the young mayor of the posh Parisian suburb of Neuilly, Sarkozy took the time to visit churches and give talks about the role of religion in society.
As he climbed the political ranks he took this zeal with him. On becoming France’s interior minister in 2004 he took on the position of minister of worship, which entailed overseeing government relations with all religions. He performed this role with particular fervor, joking at one point, “There is no Catholic in the world who has visited as many mosques as I have.”
It was while serving as interior minister that he spelled out his vision for the role of religion in France, in a book titled Republic, Religions, and Hope. In the book, which was co-written with Dominican Father Philppe Verdin, he pushes for greater dialogue between Church and state. At the same time he is careful to point out that France’s secular roots are an integral part of the country’s culture. Proposed alterations to the law are limited to state subsidies for the construction of new religious buildings and the training of priests, pastors, and imams.
The conclusion to the book set the tone for the future. “Politicians should not simply talk about the economy, society, the environment, and security,” Sarkozy says in the book. “We should also address spiritual matters.”
Initially, Sarkozy was true to his word. In 2005, he created a commission to look into the financing of French religious institutions. But little came of it and few of the report’s recommendations were put into practice.
Following his election last June, however, he continued his warm relations with the Catholic Church. When the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean- Marie Lustiger, passed away, Sarkozy took a day out of his vacation in the United States to attend the funeral. Sarkozy is also said to be on good terms with André Vingt-Trois, the current Paris archbishop.
Father Verdin, who co-authored Republic, Religions, and Hope with Sarkozy, says that the president firmly believes that religion is the answer to many of society’s problems. “He believes that through religion society will find its love. So he believes Catholicism has a large role to play,” Verdin says. Sarkozy’s decision to talk about religion is simply taking into consideration modern demands. “Times are changing so there is no reason that the head of state cannot talk about these ideals,” Verdin says.
The Dominican priest adds that some of Sarkozy’s political choices have been inspired by his faith; for example, he cites Sarkozy’s desire to stop Turkey from becoming a member of the European Union because it is a predominantly Muslim country as well as his decision to appoint known Catholics to key positions in his cabinet.
But Sarkozy’s exotic love life and pro-abortion stand are at odds with his supposed Catholic beliefs. Marc Andrault, a French sociologist and the author of Sarkozy and God, contends that the French president is using religion for control. “He wants to use religion to build up power,” argues Andrault. “He wants to use it for political ends.”
Catholic centrist politician Francois Bayrou denounced Sarkozy in an interview for Le Figaro for treating religion as “nothing more than the opium of the masses that Marx condemned.” Sarkozy has also been criticized for favoring Catholicism over other religions. Odon Vallet, a religion professor at the Sorbonne University, argues that Sarkozy must be careful to remain a neutral “umpire” when it comes to religion. “He must not privilege any belief over another.”
For now, Sarkozy has put religion on the backburner. He still occasionally attends church services as part of his presidential functions but is careful to comply with protocol. Vallet says that Sarkozy’s speech at St. John Lateran was designed to test the water. “He made a mistake to see what happened,” says Vallet. “He won’t change anything.”
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