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French Secularism Under Threat: “Has Religion Become the Pillar of Social Peace?”

Translated Saturday 26 January 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Historian Jean-Paul Scot is the author of “l’Etat chez lui, l’Eglise chez elle. Comprendre la loi de 1905 », State and Church in their separate places: an analysis of the 1905 law [1]. His close study of the French president’s speeches shows how these speeches actually challenge not only the French constitutional principle of the secular State (“laïcité”) but the Republic itself.

HUMA: How do you account for religion’s comeback at the highest levels of the State?

JEAN-PAUL SCOT: A Dominican counsellor of Sarkozy explains this quite candidly: “We cannot depend on unbridled neo-liberalism to replace the communist faith in a brighter future. We have got to find something that encourages people to place their hopes in some project, in some dream, something that helps them transcend the difficulties of every-day life…” Under the pretext that religion is making a comeback, which all sociological surveys in Europe deny, and taking advantage of the crumbling of the modern founding ideologies and declining public confidence in reason and science, neoconservatives all the world over advocate that the positive contribution of religion be officially acknowledged in education, morality, culture, welfare, and even in politics. Strangely, they even present this as the hallmark of ultra-modernism.

Clearly, Nicolas Sarkozy wants to align France on European countries in which churches are granted official status as co- partners of the State; in short he is targeting the constitutional principle of the separation of Church and State [2]. No wonder he proposes having denominational representatives sit on the Conseil économique et social, the consultative economic and social committee that represents civil society.

HUMA: In what respects do Nicolas Sarkozy’s declarations challenge the principle of “laïcité”?

JEAN-PAUL SCOT: In his very first speech after being invested as presidential candidate on January 15, 2007 Sarkozy said he wanted to “modernize laïcité”: “The laïcité I believe in,” he said, “has nothing to do with war on religion.” Three observations must be made here. One: hostility to religion has always been a minority trend within the French secularist movement for its fathers founded it on the principles of freedom of conscience, equality before the law and the equal dignity of all religious, philosophical, atheistic, or agnostic beliefs. Secondly, the fathers of the 1905 law, namely Jean Jaurès and Ferdinand Buisson [3], made it clear that the secular State must be neutral with respect to the different cults, independent of any clergy and free from any religious or theological influence. General de Gaulle himself delivered the message to the assembly of French Roman Catholic bishops in 1958: “You say that France is Roman Catholic, but it is a secular Republic (“la République est laïque”). Thirdly, even though today Sarkozy says that “laïcité means respect for all religious persuasions,” he also declares that he wants “all the expectations of the great religions to be duly met … (for) spiritual life is the source of human vocations that the Republic itself cannot foster since it does not distinguish between good and evil… Religion can provide that distinction.”

Clearly, this is a negation of the common principles that bind all the Republic’s citizens together. This clearly establishes religion as the foundation of morality and the pillar of law and order. By making religion serve political ends, Sarkozy is not just challenging “laïcité”, the French secularist principle; his views also offend against the Constitution and the Republic.

HUMA: Would you say that the foregrounding of France’s “Christian roots” is a way of negating the diversity of France’s identities?

JEAN-PAUL SCOT: History shows that looking back to the past for the country’s roots has always characterized reactionary and nationalist movements that were incapable of proposing generous policies founded on the principles of emancipation and justice for all. Conversely, what it also shows is that the critique of Christian values, of “faith, hope and charity” has broken the path that led to the Revolution’s proclamation of the principles of "liberty, equality, and fraternity". Lastly I would say that France’s identity is no legacy from the past; its construction is always in the making; it is a permanent process to which contribute all those who by the blood they shed, the sweat of their labour, or the liberality of their creativity have made France a reference for all those who seek liberty and social justice.

Sarkozy should take advice from the Italian bishop who said: “Better be a good Christian and say nothing about it than say a lot about it and not be one.”

[1The 1905 law on the separation of Church and State prohibits the State from recognizing or funding any religion.

[2Article 1 of the Constitution declares France to be an “indivisible, secular (“laïque”),democratic and social Republic”

[3Historic figures both in many respects, Jaurès (1859-1914) notably as French socialist leader and thinker - founder of l’Humanité , Ferdinand Buisson (1841-1932) as the fervent advocate of “laïcité” (a term he himself coined) and a prominent founding father with Jules Ferry of France’s free, obligatory, secular primary education in the 1880s.


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