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Politics & Society

FAITH & REASON/ Secularist France Seeks Help From Religion, but Will They Have the Courage to Take It?

With his speech in Rome in December 2007, President Sarkozy offered a lesson in theory for all of Europe on true secularism. Will there be someone in France able to follow through and allow its translation into practice?

In a speech delivered before Pope Benedict XVI, President Sarkozy expressed hope for In a speech delivered before Pope Benedict XVI, President Sarkozy expressed hope for "positive secularism"

In recent weeks, France is seeing a resurgence of the debate on secularism. Various incidents have contributed to refueling the fire: the proposed bill promoted by Sarkozy that would prohibit the burqa in all public places, the Israeli attacks in past weeks, and the machine-gunning of a mosque in the southern French town Istres are only three examples of the continued friction over how to ‘coexist’ in the nation where the concept of laïcité was born.

These events are making headlines, bringing the focus of newspapers back to the debate surrounding the model of coexistence which seems unable to meet the challenges of a world—and certainly a Europe—that increasingly finds itself forced to start over, thinking in terms of actual relationships, and not in terms of abstract tolerance.

An article by the Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, recently appeared in Le Monde. The acting voice of French Judaism expressed himself quite clearly. “The various religions,” he writes, “can help create a more peaceful France.” It’s a statement that cannot be taken for granted in the country that, along with “modern” Turkey, has been most faithful to the project of transforming the actual-public sphere into an abstract-vacuum model. “Each of the great religions and philosophies in our country,” he continues, “carry treasures in terms of reason, justice, and peace that must be mobilized in order to help the République,” because “despite the differences in dogma, all people of good faith can understood each other."

But how can we reopen the road of understanding that seems to be closed? Bernheim, coming from a religious tradition rooted in the concrete experience of human relationships and the importance of physical places, emphasizes the need to break out of the abstract terms in which the debate has been enclosed.

A return is needed to “face to face discussion, meeting each other eye to eye, fleeing from the easy self-satisfaction of monologues” and to recognize that “history is not a fantasy, but needs, and will always need, to be build upon within concrete places.” It is necessary to “use the experience we have inherited (…) to find the gestures, words, and way of looking at one another that allow us to create, precisely in the place we are living, peace, discipline, solidarity and dignity.”