La République, les Religions et l’Espérance
by Nicolas Sarkozy
Editions du Cerf / Pocket | 2005 | 208 pages | ISBN 2266157086 | 6.20 Euros

It may come as a surprise to an English-speaking audience to learn that the man in charge of France’s police is also in charge of its religions. A recent book in question and answer form with Dominique Verdin, a Dominican priest and Thibaud Collin, a young Catholic philosopher, shows that Nicolas Sarkozy, Minister of the Interior and presidential aspirant, is a man capable of grasping the nettle of religion in a French secular republic.

The title — The Republic, Religions and Hope — is misleading. The book’s concern is not with religions as such, but with the danger that Islam entails for French secularism. If Judaism and Christianity are now both soluble in the French Republic (some argue they contributed to shaping it), Islam, with its tendency to amalgamate the religious and the political, is widely seen as a civilisational shock-provoker. However, in dealing with Islam, Sarkozy has decided to break new ground and be provocative, first of all by expressing his own belief in God and secondly by suggesting amendments to French legislation that many considered as sacrosanct symbols of the secular Republic.

Estimates of the legal Muslim population in France vary from 4 to6 million believers. Events abroad — the Twin Towers destruction and the Iraq War — have sent a blast through that community which, if inadequately integrated, risked falling prey to the influence of foreign Islamic movements. For the last 20 years, some way of “fixing” the diverse French Muslim community, in the sense of stabilising and controlling it, has been on the agenda of governments, both left and right. Pierre Joxe, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, Dominique de Villepin all had a go, but even if there are similarities between say, Chevènement’s (left-wing) ideas and Sarkozy’s (right-wing) reforms, no Interior Minister has gone as far as Sarkozy.

Between May 2002 and March 2004, in a context of social insecurity, outbursts of racial aggression and anti-Semitism, increasing confusion between religion and fundamentalism, Islam and terrorism, the need for a “Mr. Fix-It” was urgent. Sarkozy set to work, meeting hundreds of Muslims: believers in mosques, French experts, Muslim theologians in foreign universities. The result was the creation of the CFCM, the French Council for the Muslim Cult. Just as Napoleon set up a Consistory for French Jews in 1808, Sarkozy, 200 years later, set up a representative body for French Muslims. The CFCM, which is, so far, more representative than any other body, is proof that Islam is not entirely refractory to democracy — 75 per cent of its members are elected by the faithful themselves. Muslims in France and abroad have come to regard Sarkozy as their advocate. The Council has a moderate majority but it also includes fundamentalist groups which are better organised and eager to win credibility. Regional branches exist throughout French territory to avoid Parisian centralism and facilitate dialogue and control over particular Islamic communities.

Overcoming resistance

They want to be French AND MuslimIn his attempt to integrate Islam into France, two sorts of resistance had to be overcome. One was the French secularist ideology, “laïcité”, and the other was the Muslim religion itself. “Laïcité” arose from what seemed to anti-Catholics as early as the end of the 18th century the monopoly of Catholicism on French social life. The unspoken assumption in this brand of encyclopaedic rationalism is that unaided human reason can ultimately solve all of life’s problems; religion is viewed as an historical pathology that can be overcome by instilling a critical spirit from an early age. “Laïcité” is therefore a massive silencing of all religious concerns in society, a total separation of the social/political, which is public, from the religious, which is private. After a century of anti-clericalism beginning with the French Revolution, in 1905 the secularising process culminated in a law regulating the separation of the Church and the State. After it was passed, many religious orders were expelled from France.

Over the years, there have been adjustments. Religious schools in France are often privately financed, but if they comply with certain norms a contract of “association” is granted. In the hard-line secularist view, religion is to have no say in, or support from, the Republic. The historical, civilising role of Christianity, for example, if not always denied, is rarely publicly acknowledged. A respectful, sometimes embarrassed, silence descends whenever religious matters are broached, even though a majority of French citizens claim to be Christian.

On the other side, and more seriously, there are also the real resistances that Islam offers to a secular republic. Some Muslims in France have learnt how to use Western discourse on human rights and “respect for minorities” in order to gain ground in the secular state. Clearly, if all the demands formulated by Islamic groups were to be satisfied, the civil order would be seriously upset: Friday as a day of worship, no more men doctors for women patients, separate hours in public swimming pools for men and women, Muslim chaplains for prisons, the need to rewrite French colonial history, introducing new holidays into the civil calendar to accommodate the feast of Aïd-el-Kébir, the Muslim feast in celebration of Abraham, women wearing scarves, etc. Here Sarkozy’s negotiating strategy has been to argue: “We both have to give and take”. If the republic must change, so must Islam.

As Sarkozy cannot simply discard the Republican ideology of “laïcisme”, he has to blunt its resistance by introducing a distinction between negative and positive secularism. Negative secularism is depicted as rabid, hypocritical, narrow, backward-looking and sectarian. Sarkozy’s positive secularism stands for a new relation between the Republic and its religions and a recognition of the benefits of religion for society. If the Republic’s concerns are public order and politics, the concern of religion is the after-life, the domain of hope. Religious education, he claims, is more important for the young than music, dancing, gymnastics or drawing; it obliges them to reach out and open their hearts to non-individual objectives. It helps to see life as a project desired by God and the world as a place with a common destiny in which all play a part. Sarkozy quotes the revered observer of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, at hard-line republicans: “If despotism can do without Faith, a free regime cannot. Religion is much more necessary in the republic they desire than in the monarchy they attack; and more necessary still in democratic republics than in other sorts”.

If negative secularism blocks the integration of Islam in the Republic, Sarkozy, with his positive secularism, is prepared to revise the 1905 law. He even envisages public financing for major religions, such as funding training for priests, rabbis and imams. If the hand that gives is the hand that controls, Sarkozy prefers for Muslims to receive subsidies from the French state rather than from Saudi Arabia! He claims that Islamic leaders abroad now look on France in a new way — as real protectors of minority rights. He believes that he has contributed to renewing France’s image as a universal defender of human rights.

Breaking new ground

Sarkozy is certainly breaking new ground in expressing his personal convictions on the importance of religion in secular society, in admitting the importance of Islam and in the audacity of his policies to finance religions, particularly Islam. These are ideas that neither Mitterrand nor Chirac has voiced and that considerably enhance his stature as a presidential candidate. Is he being naïve, provocative or electoralist (most second generation Muslims vote left!) Probably all three. One thing is certain, he is not hiding behind his hat.

There are social and psychological challenges, too, that the Republic must face: exclusion, poverty, delinquency and ghettos. Along with support for religions, Sarkozy recommends continuing with various forms of positive discrimination and providing young French Muslims with role models. He insists, furthermore on the right of the Republic to control if it has to pay. But if we are to “normalise” Islam, where do we send future imams for training? To Egypt? To Switzerland? To Saudi Arabia? Possibly Sarkozy suspects that all attempts to consolidate and unify Islam by confronting it with the test of rationality may spell its undoing.

If his positive “laïcité” can make concessions on many matters, on some, however, Sarkozy is adamant. He is not prepared to accept the circumcision of young girls, forced marriages or polygamy. These issues, he argues, are either part of French identity or rest on universal principles. He modestly concludes that he has not so much sought to organise Islam in France, as to organise an Islam for France.

The historical breakthrough which this book represents is the public willingness of a French statesman to take religious phenomena seriously in an ideologically less clouded way. The book is not perfect. Sarkozy clearly shares many of the rational encyclopaedic tenets he seeks to combat. For example, his view of religion as something non-scientific and irrational shows a rudimentary lack of philosophical and theological awareness. Even his positive “laïcité” is not free of a certain methodological relativism which refuses to raise the question of the truth of the relation between God and man. For Christianity and Judaism, religion is not merely a matter of man seeking sense or inventing meaning; but of receiving, living and rationally testing at the same time. Islam may well prove insoluble not only in the French republic, but also in reason.

But he has, undoubtedly contributed to preparing another vision of the state as a subsidiary body with regard to spiritual institutions. This contribution is matched by his other achievements as Interior Minister; notably a considerable drop in delinquency and in road accidents. His energy and desire to get visible results go down well with many French people, to such an extent that his greatest adversary in the 2007 presidential election, socialist Ségolène Royal, has begun stealing parts of his programme. Whether the French realise it or not, they have in this candidate an open-minded, intelligent politician who has shown that sheer hard work and getting results is more than half the task of governing.

Michael Shanks writes from Marseille.