Timothy Lehmann on La République, les religions, l’espérance by Nicolas Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy. La République, les religions, l’espérance. Editions du Cerf. 172 pages. €17.
In this last American election cycle, political observers noted a significant gap between the ways in which George W. Bush and John Kerry approached the delicate matter of politics and religion. Bush was comfortable proclaiming his faith as an integral, if not the most essential, aspect of his life. Kerry, on the other hand, was considerably more reticent. Much of his rhetoric seemed to suggest that American politics is simply a secular affair, in which all political claims derived from religious teaching are prima facie illegitimate, because values cannot or should not be imposed on others who do not share them. These two Americans are poles apart regarding the manner in which they discuss religion and politics, and their disparity highlights the increasing differences with which American conservatives and American liberals and most Europeans view the role of religion in public life.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Nicolas Sarkozy, formerly France’s interior minister and minister of finance, who was recently overwhelmingly elected as leader of France’s major center-right political party, is causing a stir with his singular understanding of this question. His new book, La République, les religions, l’espérance (The Republic, religions, and hope), is being touted as a quasi-revolutionary document that seeks to redefine relations between religion and politics in France. In it he unveils his “personal sentiments,” the result of his experience in political life, condensed and revealed in a series of interviews. Most Americans, plagued either by a Francophilia that wants to enlist France’s muscular military forces and diplomatic finesse in the war against terrorism, or a Francophobia that condemns France, its history, and all it has ever produced as a spineless and subversive menace beyond any hope of rapprochement, don’t seem to be noticing. Few Americans even attempt to steer a via media toward a more measured (one hesitates to say “nuanced”) understanding of the proper relationship between America and France, or to appreciate potential friends among the allegedly homogeneously oppositional French.
A protégé of Jacques Chirac in the 1970s, Nicolas Sarkozy is an unabashedly ambitious politician who is currently Chirac’s most feared rival, and is positioning himself to capture the French presidency in 2007. A deal was struck in early September 2004 between Chirac and Sarkozy that would allow Sarkozy to run for head of the Union for a Popular Movement (ump), Chirac’s moderate conservative party, if he promised to resign as minister of finance in November. Now Sarkozy is head of the ump, a potential springboard to the presidency.
It might seem strange that a former finance minister who managed the important though relatively prosaic job of trying to spur France’s perennially flagging economy would now be in the national spotlight for raising the question of religion and politics in France. But as minister of the interior, Sarkozy has increased police presence in Muslim neighborhoods and worked energetically and optimistically with the recently formed French Council on the Muslim Religion (cfcm) and its Union of Islamic Organizations of France (uoif) in the hope of dissuading Muslim leaders from embracing extremist politics and integrating them into democratic processes. By appealing to, and indeed clearly appreciating, religious believers in national life, “Sarko” seems to be breathing new life into demons long thought dead and fanning the flames of spirits that haven’t yet been killed. France’s elites are not taking kindly to his ideas: In an interview in L’Express, he was told that his book was “disturbing,” and he was derided for his “offensive manner.”
France’s religious demons were supposed to have been exorcized with the enactment in 1905 of a law forbidding state funding of religion. This was the culmination of a hundred-year religious war of sorts that began when — after the often strange and violent events following the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 — laïcité triumphed, and religion was banished from the public square, hopefully to die a slow and quiet death in the hearts of the last few believers.
But with the influx of Muslim immigrants from the Maghreb, of whom there are now at least 5 million and counting — including a burgeoning number of youth — the challenge and political necessity of integrating them into France’s increasingly secular society has fallen to its political leaders. Sarkozy has thus far been the most visible and articulate interpreter of the question of religion and politics and his views have come into daylight with the publication of this book. La Republic vigorously challenges France’s existing laws and status quo, reinvigorates questions about the soul, and throws into doubt widely accepted and encrusted beliefs about the temporal and the eternal. While Sarkozy’s practical concern is how to improve French society and promote tolerance among Muslims, Jews, Christians, and nonbelievers in France, his overall approach to the question of religion and society has much in common with the views of many American conservatives.
Although it is unwise to try to make windows into men’s souls to know their true beliefs, what is incontrovertibly true is that Nicolas Sarkozy is the son of a Hungarian emigrant father and a French Jewish mother, and he is also a member of the Roman Catholic Church. As he puts it, “I am of Catholic culture, Catholic tradition, Catholic faith. Even if my religious practice is episodic, I acknowledge myself as a member of the Catholic Church.” Furthermore, he believes that “spiritual need and hope are not satisfied by the republican ideal. . . . [The republic] is the best way to live together, but it is not the finality of man.” Sarkozy acknowledges the importance of religion in France and of the religious sphere in life generally. He follows America’s friendly critic, Alexis de Tocqueville, who advised Americans to avoid the tragedies of Europe’s past by not integrating politics and religion too closely, but also cautioned us not to remove either from human life altogether. His views stand in stark contrast to those of most contemporary secular French politicians, who see no place for this outmoded, superstitious, dangerous, and apparently superfluous aspect of human life. Sarkozy’s book appeared on the heels of a summer in which Christianity’s meaning and impact on Europe’s traditions and contemporary life had been hotly debated, with scant success achieved by religious leaders.
It is important to make a distinction regarding political secularism that is often forgotten. Sarkozy recoils from any “sectarian” understanding of laïcité and is unequivocally committed to secular democracy. Good secular government also ensures that religious leaders do not manage the untidy business of political power, in spite of all temptation. Spiritual and temporal powers must remain separate, and Sarkozy opposes writing God into the European constitution. But he is an opponent of the absolute secularization of society that attempts to remove any and all religious influence from human life.
While the 1905 law’s explicit intention was to deny any state-sanctioned religion, its effectual end was the crippling of the Catholic religion in public life by denying it, or any other religion, government funding. In contradistinction to this stark division between the secular and the sacred, Sarkozy favors a “laïcité positive,” one that guarantees the right to live one’s religion as a fundamental right. To his mind, this includes providing public funding for religions. If soccer fields, libraries, and theaters all benefit from public funding, Sarkozy wonders, why shouldn’t religious communities, which also promote cultural flourishing, also receive funds? While he doesn’t favor earmarking funds to build mosques per se, he favors funding for parking lots for them, as well as for Muslim “cultural centers.” Sarkozy recognizes that the 1905 law was the result of a delicate “equilibrium,” reached after divisions that tore the nation, and thus “it is necessary to reflect carefully” before breaking with the spirit of the law. Without modifying its basic structure, he favors public financing of the “great religions” of France. To that end, he advocates funding “national republican” education for religious leaders, reasoning that it is preferable to have imams educated in French universities and speaking French than to have imams educated abroad who are hostile to the existing republic. It also discourages the clandestine extremism that plagues many banlieues, the often decrepit Muslim-dominated neighborhoods of France’s largest cities, and promotes transparency of religious education.
Sarkozy is not about to fling France back into the Dark Ages: He’s wary of “those who call for a return to the past . . . . The search for solutions by looking backwards is at the antipodes of my reflexes.” But he makes an adroit observation about life: “My long-held conviction is that the need for hope is consubstantial to human existence; and that what makes religious liberty so important is that it is in reality a matter of the liberty to hope.”
More potential dangers seem to attend believing ages (without forgetting the militant atheism of the twentieth century). For this reason it might seem sensible (or at least useful, if not politically necessary) to advocate removing that threat by tempering and eventually eliminating it altogether through the process of secularizing all aspects of life. But the long-term prospects of a universalized secularism are dubious at best, for some of the deepest sources of decent political life may be obscured or effaced in the process of hyper-secularization. Regarding the question of forbidding young Muslim females from wearing the veil at school, Sarkozy defended the ban without being as viscerally supportive of it as some of France’s more secular politicians. He viewed the fact that many young Muslims ignored the prohibition as a reflex of cultural identity in a secular society that they perceive as hostile. Moreover, he sees the veil question as a matter of freedom of expression, though one which can only be protected within the framework of laïcité.
A persuasive argument could be made that the welcome approval of religion in France could lead to increased levels of anti-Semitism and a reduction of tolerance among sects and factions. France’s historical and contemporary anti-Semitism is a stain and a poison. It compelled Theodor Herzl to declare that if the French Jew Alfred Dreyfus could be unjustly convicted of treason in 1894 in a country whose fundamental principles proclaimed the universal liberté, égalité, and fraternité of all men, then there could be no completely satisfying settlement on the Jewish question between Jews and any modern liberal democracy. However, Sarkozy is himself of Jewish descent and therefore particularly sensitive to such threats, and in any case France’s periodic spates of anti-Semitic animus seem to have deeper roots that haven’t been eradicated with the advent of secular political institutions, liberal or otherwise. The existence and continued influence of Jean-Marie Le Pen is a case in point. Sarkozy reserves the possibility “for the state to expel by military force any imam who exhorts hatred toward Jews, the West, or modern societies.” As the cfcm gains in credibility and stature, “responsible” Jews, Muslims, and Christians must, through dialogue, “act hand in hand” to combat racism and xenophobia.
In continuing to affirm the pluralism of the French Republic, Sarkozy allows for competition among religions, which has long been a useful means to block the takeover of politics by a single dominant religion. This is unquestionably a difficult balancing act, as it has been in times past, but can it really be asserted that with Europe’s current lack of fervor in faith there is any serious impending danger to the rights of its citizens? Both the American and the French systems of government lay claim to being dedicated to political freedom. Surely both countries can be counted on to continue to affirm the superiority of their political organizations over the undemocratic and corrupt governments of the world.
In Sarkozy’s mind, religion answers an important need in any healthy society. A stable balance between religion and good politics can be achieved without sanctioning a state religion and forced proselytism, and without favoring one religion over another. Sarkozy doesn’t fail to point out that the religion which he has worked hardest to incorporate into French society, Islam, is not his own. He has labored for it not in the name of his own faith but in the name of the republic. While he is a proud defender of the established French Republic (and its intransigent division between the autonomy of the political, governed by free human beings, and religious authority), he realizes equally the need and importance of religion in any society, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise. “The spiritual question,” he says, “is one of hope, of hope to have, after death, a perspective of accomplishment in eternity.”
One of the ultimate questions is whether a rational and enlightened (or irrationally enlightened) Europe has really figured things out, once and for all. Can people live contentedly in a post-historical paradise of material pursuit? Or is there something not completely satisfying about those circumstances? The debate over religion in Europe is whether it was a noxious (and now discredited) fairy tale that caused needless bloodshed and suffering in the Middle Ages, or an important part of society, the absence of which caused needless bloodshed and suffering in the century just past. Clearly, both alternatives in their extremes sought to establish unnatural utopias on earth. The attempt to satisfy religious longings was horrifyingly damaging to decent political and social life in the Middle Ages. But the attempted extirpation by force of the unsatisfied religious longing from Nazi Germany and Communist Russia was equally, if not more horrifyingly, damaging to Europe. Its unforced extirpation in some of the liberal democracies of the West is damaging in its own way. In Sarkozy’s eyes, “religions must exist elsewhere besides in the museums, and the churches must not become nostalgic conservatories of a glorious past. . . .We’re not in the ussr where the churches became markets and gymnasiums.” He sees in religious structures “a factor of integration, of meetings, of exchanges, whichever religion is concerned.”
Although Sarkozy must know that there are considerable risks involved in melding democracy and Islam, he refuses to countenance the possibility of their ultimate incompatibility, dismissing such suggestions as “irresponsible.” This may well be rhetoric intended to appeal to potential Muslim democrats, but it may indeed be irresponsible not to consider, or to underemphasize, the ways in which Islam has manifested itself in the past, and its tolerance (or lack) of political freedom. The French must therefore confront the terrible possibility that Islam as it has existed in the past and their secular democracy may not be able to unite over the long term. Sarkozy isn’t so naïve as not to realize that religion can be used to justify violence and intolerance. A real clash of civilizations could occur if he and his allies fail to guide French politics successfully, as Tocqueville warned at the beginning of the democratic era. To be sure, Tocqueville’s isn’t the last word on the matter, and many faithful Muslims, like Dalil Boubakeur, the head of the Paris mosque, are more sanguine than he was about establishing a democratic Islam. Muslim citizens enjoy the same rights as others, as Sarkozy makes clear, and they should not be deprived of their right to believe. Time and time again, Sarkozy insists that there must be an Islam of France, not an Islam in France.
The cfcm is intended to organize and represent Muslim believers by allowing them to associate publicly, to encourage dialogue with others and thus promote democratic compromise, and to deprive the extremists of their main arguments. Regional councils have also been created, encouraging local representation. In addition, Sarkozy favors educating more young Muslims in public administration, which has so far been a successful experiment at the prestigious Sciences-Po.
Sarkozy’s strong support of religion in public life may shock people who believe that taking religion seriously is symptomatic of nostalgia for the dark ages. However, he knows there can be absolutely no thought of going back to pre-democratic times. Secular democratic politics and some degree of materialism are acceptable if tempered by a pre-democratic religious inheritance outside the contours of secular modernity. Sarkozy is said to “love” American culture, and even met with Tom Cruise (whom he regards as a “great actor”) during the American’s recent trip to Paris.
In the absence — or nonarrival — of a new age of German-inspired gods disclosing themselves to men to light up our horizon for the better, we might be witnessing the revitalization of a moderate religious influence on modern democratic life. Europe’s current leaders and many of its citizens will hardly be keen on such a prospect: Hollywood films on Saturday night and mass on Sunday — quelle horreur! The coexistence of mosque-goers and shameless Euro Disney tourists with sophisticated Gauloise-smoking grande école graduates will be trying at the very least. But Sarkozy’s ambitious plans may be steering French democracy in that direction. If he is unsuccessful the alternatives may be far uglier. None of his critics has proposed a feasible alternative strategy.