I shall focus on Benedict XVI's highly charged visit to France insofar as it put the spotlight on the changing notion of laïcité and the separation of church and state. How Benedict XVI adjusted to Nicolas Sarkozy would need another article altogether, and in it we would be surprised to see who was the more secular-minded.
The president's speech in the Élysée Palace, just words for now, confirms what he said in the Lateran Basilica. For him religion has a future in a post-modern society because the latter needs it for education, cohesion and governance. A certain contrast between private life and public beliefs has made it easier to spread his ideas, which might not have been as easily accepted if they had come from any another public figure.
The fervour and liveliness of young Christians were something to behold and as the Pope's trips show the number of believers is undoubtedly ten times what statistics say, whoever the incumbent may be. In turning sacred cows upside down in matters of religion, Nicolas Sarkozy has set in motion a process whose outcome is yet to be measured. Only time will tell, whether France will follow him; also showing whether this moment in time represents a major shift in history or not. We shall also see if this change will mainly affect people's inner spirituality or reshape given walks of life (like family, money, bioethics, public recognition of humans' religious nature). Should this happen, it will be remembered as a historic decision.
In a country like France, apparently so irreligious when seen from the outside, national cohesion tends to go very deep. The Republic's secularism did not aim at a better division of labour between civilian and religious institutions but rather at concentrating them on behalf of one way of thinking and at the expense of another, namely Catholicism—the net result of which has been the elevation of the philosophy of the Enlightenment to the status of a triumphant state philosophy with a monopoly over education, law-making and moral upbringing. In this sense the Jacobin Republic (that of 1792, 1877 and 1905) saw itself as a national community of the spirit tied together by a faith in philosophy, readily intolerant, but often pragmatic. If in 1790 Catholicism had accepted to be a symbolic and traditional shell for a philosophy-based civic religion advancing the goals of the "République illuministe", the Revolution might not have morphed into an anti-religious machine. The 1905 laws were based on this view and we might not even rule the possibility that Nicolas Sarkozy could have something like this in the back of his mind. In fact the status granted to French Muslims is quite close to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.
Since the Republic did not abolish absolutism until it overran Europe, and did so not so much by abolishing absolute power but rather by replacing the king with the people as the embodiment of sovereignty, as a philosophy-based community the Republic had to inherit the privileges of the Gallican Church and play the role that the Bourbons had devolved as instrumentum regni to Gallicanism. Hence the Gallican structure of laïcité underpins terms like catholaïcité (Catho-secularism) and France catholaïque (Catho-secular France) which are still in use in France today.
Although the fervour for the enlightenment varied according to individual rulers (as did piety among the 'Very Christian Kings'), no one (not even among the staunchest Catholic) would have dared relativising the Enlightenment and challenge its status as a quasi state religion.
Now Sarkozy has treated the enlightenment like any other spiritual force in French society, coldly stripping it of its status as an all-powerful idea, towering over other minor and tolerated religions. Instead for him it just like any another spiritual family with a rightful claim to a place within the nation but with no exclusive claim to reason which is instead everyone's property, whether religious or not.
For anyone who knows the history of this country the non-provocative non-disrespectful disestablishment of rationalist philosophy, the absence of waffling in the Élysée speeches, the reassertion by Benedict XVI's Church of its equal claim to reason, and finally the return of France to political-religious practices that express an anthropology that de facto recognises homo sapiens as a religious animal are all just so striking and astonishing.
In light of what we know about the bloodless intolerance of this country and the fear of irony, mockery or marginalisation that underlie so much of its self-censorship and self-repression in matters religious, we might as well be in a dream.
Of all the groups in the country, I think the clergy must be the most surprised. I have the impression that, unsure about the president staying power and his willingness to stick to his guns (wrongly in my opinion), the clergy was unprepared for what happened.
The importance of Sarkozy's gesture for Europe is considerable. What in France is called laïcité or secularism stems from a strong national and political-religious structure created by the monarchy, one that is independent, spiritual and national, with imperial ambitions, or fiercely hostile to the political unity of Christendom whenever such ambitions have been disappointed. This is why France is a wrecking ball for European unity and why changes to France's religious politics are probably what might usher in such unity, assuming that is that Europe can meet France part of the way.
Henri HUDE, director of the Ethics Centre at the St-Cyr Military Academy Research Centre