Saturday, September 15, 2007

Sarkozy on Religion--A Guest Post from Ronald Tiersky

The following is a guest post contributed by Ronald Tiersky, who is the author of, among other things, François Mitterrand: A Very French President, a fine biography of Tonton Le Florentin. It is a review of the book of interviews with Sarkozy on religion that was published in 2004.

Review of: La république, les réligions, l'espérance, Entretiens avec Thibaud Collin et Philippe Verdin, Paris: Les éditions du cerf, 2004.

President Nicolas Sarkozy is famous for admitting, in a television debate, that "I'm no intellectual," and more recently, that "France thinks too much." Of course these statements were ironic although this escaped many commentators.

As for the first, what he meant was, approximately, 'Well, I'm no intellectual but intellectuals, although they talk a lot, generally don't understand the real problems of governing. I'm a practical man who gets things done.’ As for the second, Sarkozy obviously wasn't talking about the French people, he was talking again about intellectuals and even some politicians (e.g. Villepin) who make grand abstract pronouncements steeped in the French elites historic love of lovely language (the more euphemistic the better).

Sarkozy, like him or hate him, is no intellectual but he has the talent and could have become one. Much more than he is given credit for (and despite an earthy vocabulary), he is a thinking man's president, just as he is much less of a hard-right brute in public policy terms than expected.

Viz. a book I've mentioned a few times in my comments on this blog, an unjustly neglected 2004 book of interviews with him on issues of religious belief, practice and political implications.

Sarkozy was minister of the interior, 2002-2004. Few people know that by tradition the French minister of the interior is also ministre des Cultes, a kind of minister for religious affairs. This is an unusual position in any government, but France here is again a special case, the position deriving from the French State's historic concern with having official representatives of religious communities to deal with--the Catholic hierarchy, the CRIF for the Jewish community, and now (Sarkozy brought to fruition a plan conceived in the Lionel Jospin government), the Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM). .


In this little book, all the classic issues of the relation of religion and the French state are raised by the interviewers, from the 1905 law to the recent drama about whether young Muslim girls should be permitted to wear the voile in public grammar and high schools.

Sarkozy took the strict secular position against permission--along with most of the Socialists and the Communists it ought to be added. However he opposed making a law to this effect because it would be inflammatory nationally and internationally (which it was), and because such a hard line smacked of what was being called "fundamentalist secularism". (Sarkozy nevertheless publicly supported President Chirac's law on the principle of government solidarity.)

As to the place of religion in understanding the character of French society, Sarkozy says that "the importance of sociological questions has been overestimated while the significance of religious and spiritual facts has been very much underestimated." (p. 13) When he became interior minister, he faced a dangerous confusion of society-wide worries about public security, survival of the French model of integration, a recrudescence of racism and anti-Semitism, a false conflation of religion and fundamentalism, and of Islam and terrorism. He saw his job as simultaneously to fight xenophobia and to promote a new idea of social integration. (p. 10)

The book is full of detailed discussions of particular issues and events, too full to summarize here. Here as in other policy questions, Sarkozy (once again, like him or hate him) may well be the best-informed politician in France.

Taken as a whole, Sarkozy demonstrates a far more balanced, sometimes even philosophical view of religion and the state in France than his public image. In practical terms, he emphasizes the necessity of an integrated "Islam of France" rather than an "Islam in France." He is against both the assimilationist and communitarian models of integration. (p. 22) He argues that French secularism (laïcité) "is not the enemy of religions," which should be a private matter. (p. 15) Moreover, “religion can be independent of churches.”

La question spirituelle existe très exactement depuis que l’homme a pris conscience de son destin particulier, celui d’ĉtre un humain. La question spirituelle, c’est celle de l’espérance, l’espérance d’avoir, aprĉs la mort, une perspective d’accomplissement dans l’éternité...Pour fondamentale qu’elle soit, la question sociale n’est pas aussi consubstantielle a l’existence de l’humain que la question spirituelle. (pp. 13-14)

This may not be high theology, but it is certainly a thoughtful conception to find in a minister of the interior, or president. Readers will judge for themselves whether the proof is actually in the pudding.


Sarkozy's religious tolerance and liberal ethnic attitudes derive in part from his own family heritage.

His grandfather on his mother's side, Bénédict Mallah, was a secular Sephardic Jew from Salonika, who in 1917 married Adèle Bouvier, a young WWI widow from Lyon. (Sarkozy is thought by some bien-pensant French to have a vaguely Jewish air about him.) Mallah converted to Catholicism as a gesture to his bride and her family, apparently without much anguish.

On his state visit this week to Hungary he noted with a large smile in an address to parliament that it was “certainly noteworthy that the French president is half-Hungarian.” Years ago, on his only visit to his aristocrat father Pal’s ancestral village, he signed his full name in the town hall’s book of visitors: Nicolas Sarkozy de Nagy Bocsa).

Of course, as I said above, we’ll have to see what’s in the pudding.

-- Contributed by Ronald Tiersky, Amherst College

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