Nicolas Sarkozy said: "The schoolteacher will never be able to replace the pastor or priest, because he will always lack the radical readiness to sacrifice his life and the charisma of a commitment driven by hope." Religion, the president has argued, is the real bedrock of civilization and a source of morality more profound than any secular ethos, including the laïcité of the Republic.
Yet it seems that, according to the Conseil d'État, there are limits to the degree to which "the charisma of a commitment driven by hope" can be tolerated by the Republic. A woman of Moroccan nationality, otherwise entitled to French citizenship by virtue of her marriage to a man of French nationality, has had her application for citizenship denied on the grounds that "she has ... adopted a radical practice of her religion, incompatible with the values of the French community, and, in particular, with the principle of equality between the sexes." I make a point of citing the words of the Council's opinion, because the press has misleadingly indicated that she was denied citizenship because she wears the burqa. Her dress is in this instance merely the outward symbol of her choice of religious practice, salafism, and of a relation to her husband allegedly inherent in such a choice. It is the alleged incompatibility of republican values with certain aspects of private religious belief and private marital relations that motivated the Council's decision, which has been approved by any number of commentators, from Le Monde to Valérie Pécresse to the excellent legal blogger Maître Eolas, from whom I draw the particulars of the judgment.
Once again I am obliged to measure the distance that separates the sensibility of an American "liberal" from that of a French "republican." I confess that I find this decision profoundly disturbing. The choices and commitments this woman has made are not mine, but there is no evidence that they are anything but voluntary. If she is "submissive" to her husband, she has chosen to be so of her own free will. Carla Bruni was just granted French nationality despite her admission, in an interview with Libération, that she no longer felt free to express herself on a variety of political issues because of her relationship to her husband. The question of whether her choice was compatible with republican values did not arise in granting her citizenship. Women in France did not enjoy the right to vote until 1948, and historically it is a matter of record that their exclusion was justified as a defense of republican values (women were said to be subservient to their antirepublican confessors) rather than denounced as incompatible with them. Even the ban on visible religious insignia in public places was limited to the regulation of public behavior. This most recent decision brings the state into the private sanctum of relations between husbands and wives and presumes to judge whether deference in a private relationship poses a threat to the state.
I find all this deeply troubling and profoundly illiberal. The fact that it attacks a profoundly illiberal religious practice, salafism, is in my view irrelevant. If the ambient cultural forces of modernity, secularism, and republicanism are insufficient to dissolve the bonds of tradition that hold this couple in thrall, so be it. There is a struggle to be waged here, but it is a struggle over private conscience, which cannot be dictated by the state, and a state that forgets this is in danger of forgetting that while states may be guarantors of liberty, they may also be its annihilators.