In France, two years after the festive celebrations of a hundred years of laïcité, president Sarkozy now calls into question its very foundations. Laïcité, a word which translates difficultly into English, is a cornerstone of French public space, a defining treat of France’s intellectual life. The 1905 law which lays at its base stipulates that the state be neutral, in that it may not sponsor any particular cult whilst guaranteeing freedom of religion. Subsequently, members of a clergy cannot take part in public education and civil servants can not sport religious signs.
Nonetheless, the French head of state is traditionally granted the title of honorary canon of Saint-John of Latheran, the cathedral in Rome of which the pope is bishop. Several recent presidents have accepted and carried this title without a fuss, but Nicolas Sarkozy’s abrasive style prevented him from doing so on december 20th. A Catholic himself, Sarkozy took the occasion to express thoughts on religion, its role in France and his particular views on the French laïcité.
After stating that “the roots of France are essentially Christian”, as the baptism of Clovis, king of the Franks, rendered the nation “Fille ainée de l’église” (Eldest daughter of the church), he turns to the neutrality of the State. “La laïcité has become a condition for social peace, as the country has grown more culturally diverse”. Paradoxically, Sarkozy hails at the concept, as its defenders have attempted to “cut France off its Christian roots”, to the detriment of “the cement of national identity and social relations”. But now that la laïcité has come of age, according to Sarkozy, the time has come for her to appraise religion.
Agreeing with Benedict XVI’s last encyclical, he goes on to applaud the hopes religion feeds and its transcendental strivings amidst spiritless consumerism – a passage that has been virulently criticised by Régis Debray, ancien combattant of a thousand left-wing battles, and presidential contender Alain Bayrou as a return to religion as the opium of the people. But Sarkozy goes on to state that it’s in the Republic’s interest “that there are lots of men and women who hope”, and that France can benefit from moral thought that draws its inspiration from the religious aspiring.
The reasons he gives are, pardon my French, outrageous: “Secular morals always risk to expire when not backed by a hope that replenishes the aspirations to infinity. Moreover, morals which lack a link to the transcendent are more exposed to historical contingency and, eventually, ease.” To add insult to injury, he furthermore states that “in the transmission of values and in learning the difference between good and bad, the teacher will never be able to replace the the priest or the minister, albeit important he comes close, because he’ll always lack the radicality of life-sacrifice and the charisma of a commitment carried by hope.”
While his tinkering with the fundamentals of the French republic sparked off considerable protests, not the least from teachers’ unions, Sarkozy went a lot further when visiting Riyad, Saudi Arabia’s capital – dubbed “the capital of fanaticism” by the same Régis Debray.
Addressing the Consultative Council of the Muslim kingdom, he embarks on a lecture invoking the shared characteristics of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the positive impetus they give to mankind, the capacities for the good harboured in mankind, to conclude on highlighting the similarities between France’s and the house of Saud’s civilisational goals. While this doesn’t foresay much good, what kicked up even more dust was the incantation of God that marked the opening of his speech. Starting his formal address, France’s first citizen soon turns to chanting God’s qualities! “God transcendent, present in the thoughts and heart of everyman. God who doesn’t enslave but liberates man. God who is the threshold against the unreserved pride and the folly of man.”
Given his religious merriment, it may not be surprising that Sarkozy has called for a ‘positive laïcité‘, the overarching idea of these several interventions. Knowing that any attempt to alter the 1905 law will be stillborn, he tries to modify its interpretation. But against this, humanist organisations argue that qualifying the laïcité hollows it out, rather than enriching it. The word ‘positive’ implies that the concept has up to now been negative (towards religion). The main strength of the French laïcité is exactly its neutrality vis-à-vis every worldview – by making her embrace religion this neutrality, and so they argue the very neutrality of the French state, would be washed down.
This all, and the announced visit of the Pope on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the alleged appearance of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, has invigorated humanist activism in France. The four French member organisations of IHEU have taken action, which we’ll eagerly follow up.