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

Arrêt sur Images Returns

Daniel Schneidermann's media critique Arrêt sur Images, which was canceled by France 5, will continue on the Internet. Part of the site will be freely accessible, but some features will be available to paying subscribers only. Regular readers will recall that there had been some discussion of a plan to finance the program through the Poitou-Charentes regional council, of which Ségolène Royal is president. Apparently this didn't work out. Schneidermann rightly values his independence, as he tells the reporter for Rue89, and for that reason he has taken the gamble of a paying site rather than a free one like Rue89.

Copé Copes with Disappointment

Jean-François Copé, who heads the UMP group in parliament, has taken a part-time position with the law firm Gide Loyrette Nouel, which also happens to represent the state in the GDF-Suez merger (and Lagardère Services in some of its dealings in Russia). Copé was disappointed that Sarkozy did not make him a minister, and he has been among the more vocal critics of both l'ouverture and the social VAT. He seems to be assuaging his disappointment by risking a clear conflict of interest. What he earns from the law firm will supplement the 9500 euros a month he already collects as mayor of Meaux and deputy. Le cumul des mandats indeed!


President Sarkozy, stimulated perhaps by a brief visit to his ancestral homeland, was quite talkative on the flight home from Budapest after a 7-hour visit yesterday. "Mitterrand traveled for pleasure," he said. "I'm not criticizing. I travel to get things done." Among the things he got done while in Hungary was an apology of sorts for the dressing-down Chirac administered to the countries of the East who supported the US on the invasion of Iraq: "They missed a good opportunity to keep their mouths shut," Chirac had said, but Sarko, who in other contexts has been stingy with apologies, showed no reluctance in saying that France doesn't distinguish between the great and small nations of Europe. The important thing is to get Europe moving again.

To that end, he had some harsh words--again--for the European Central Bank: interest rates too high, too ready to bail out irresponsible lenders and borrowers in the current liquidity crisis. Jean-Claude Trichet lost no time in firing back. Of course all the sniping serves both sides rather well. The ECB maintains its commitment and gains credibility as a resister of political pressure; Sarko wins a few points with entrepreneurs and debtors. Of course the ECB will soon face a decision. With the Fed expected to lower the fed funds rate on Tuesday by 25 to 50 basis points, the ECB will have to weigh the consequent upward pressure on the euro, which is already at a historic high against the dollar. If it appreciates further, Sarko will have all the more reason to keep sniping, and even the Germans may begin to worry that the brake on growth has become tight enough to take some risk with inflation by dropping the European interest rate (or, more likely, foregoing a planned rate hike).

He also blasted Eurogroup head Jean-Claude Jüncker, the finance minister of Luxembourg, whom he had helped put in place. "What initiative has he taken" in the liquidity crisis? Sarko asked, while suggesting that he and Merkel had taken the lead while Jüncker did nothing. As for his relations with Merkel, he insisted, despite rumors to the contrary, that they had never been better. "The problem," he said, "is that she has to deal with the Länder and her coalition. I can go faster." And just to top things off, he said that it hardly mattered if French growth had dropped from 2.3 to 1.9 percent, because "I want 3 percent." And next week he would be announcing initiatives intended to achieve that. Voluntarism, confidence, chutzpah--the qualities that have gotten Sarkozy where he is remain abundantly on display, which is just where he wants them.

LATER: More here from Jean Quatremer. It's amusing to compare Sarko's blasts against Trichet with Greenspan's blasts against Bush in his just-published memoir. Central bankers and presidents are made for misunderstanding, it seems--Bush and Sarko more than most, however. Maybe that's why they get on so well: neither has much of a gift for seeing things from the other fellow's point of view, particularly if the other fellow is a central banker.

Polling on Special Regimes

A poll indicates that 68 percent of the French favor reform of the special retirement regimes: 92 percent of UMP voters, 53 percent of sympathizers of the left.