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A few years ago, I was in the middle of giving a lecture in Paris about religious persecution and martyrdom during the twentieth century when a woman stood up and shouted, “The French state has been repressing and killing Christians ever since the Revolution¯and it has to stop!” Her outburst had more to do with her own pent up frustration than anything in particular that I was saying, but it immediately struck me that she had given voice to a feeling of religious disenfranchisement in France that we almost never hear about. Nicolas Sarkozy did not exactly express the same frustration when he went to Rome on December 20, but when the president of the French Republic makes an extended plea for the public affirmation of the value of faith in a high-profile venue, some equally unexpected cri de coeur has just come over the European horizon.

A few French friends have tried to convince me that there was nothing new in Sarkozy’s speech at the Palace of St. John Lateran, where he was installed as an honorary canon, which he had not already said in his 2005 book, La République, les religions, et l’esperance . Others tell me that if he even succeeds in half of what he wants to do, it will be virtually a nouveau regime in France. My reaction falls somewhere in between. When I read Sarkozy’s book last year, I was struck by two things: his belief that the French have to learn to talk about religion in public again and his willingness even to raise questions about the socialist inspired antireligious laws of 1905 that abolished some religious orders and confiscated religious property. He backed off a bit from the second point in his speech at the Lateran Palace. (It’s very clear and winsomely delivered, so even if your French is modest, you may want to listen to it yourself . For an English translation, click here .) But his position is still strong beyond all expectation.

Earlier the same day, Sarkozy met for twenty-five minutes with Benedict XVI and the Holy See’s secretary of state. One of the first things he said to them was that the Church in France has “to be more courageous” in intervening publicly because the French Republic has need of people of faith. This was already quite daring, but he did not stop there. Remarkably, in both events, Sarkozy openly expressed his agreement with the pope’s view that a Europe without faith is a Europe without hope¯and maybe without a future. And, perhaps even more notably, he made a powerful case that the present and future depend on a more inclusive embrace of the past.

He started out by reminding his listeners that almost every French leader since Henri IV has been made a honorary canon of St. John Lateran (as he was on December 20) and, in a series of brilliant moves, showed how this was just one indication of France’s concrete roots in Christianity, specifically in the Catholicism of the majority of the French going back to Clovis in the fourth century. Christianity helped create France, and France helped Christianize Europe. Sarkozy even invoked the old formula for France¯“eldest daughter of the Church”¯though an unprejudiced outside observer might be justified in thinking that France in recent decades has bid fair to become the eldest ex-daughter of the Church.

Le Monde , France’s moral equivalent of the New York Times , was perceptibly nervous about the discourse at the Lateran, viewing it as Sarkozy’s ambitious political attempt to put an end to the “war between the two Frances” (clerical and revolutionary) and to reconcile the lay Republic and the Catholic Church. Sarkozy himself sees things a bit differently. If you believe him, France has already changed a great deal without his intervention. The French are a lot more diverse in their religious and philosophical beliefs than they were even a few decades ago, but they are also moving away from the negative laicité s of the past, which “for long, long, too long, undervalued the importance of spiritual aspirations.” It even tried for a while to sever France completely from its Christian roots, but “it shouldn’t have.” In Sarkozy’s telling, the example of good and humble priests who have served the people quietly in the past century has already overcome the anticlericalism of the past. In particular, men like Cardinal Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris whose origins were Jewish and who died just last year, “by his life, writings, and, permit me to say, the mystery of his conversion,” have made a great difference in modern French society.

Those differences should lead France, says Sarkozy, to a laicité positive , a secular order as we might say on this side of the frog pond, equally welcoming of the contributions of believers and nonbelievers. Sarkozy enumerated the contributions of French believers in the arts, intellectual and spiritual life, and in other ways to France, mentioning by name Couperin, Péguy, Pascal, Bossuet, Claudel, Bernanos, Poulenc, Messiaen, Maritain, Mounier, de Lubac, and René Girard on the more secular side; and, on the more strictly religious: Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint Louis, Bernadette of Lourdes, Thérèse of Lisieux, Charles de Foucauld, John Vianney, among others. He even boasted of France’s presence in the Roman Curia, its oldest diplomatic ties to the Holy See, and its contributions to archaeological and scriptural studies via the Ecole Biblique . It’s an impressive list that even the French do not often see cited as evidence of just how much Catholicism has shaped French culture, architecture, literature, art, and the very landscape and life of the people. “Those are the facts,” he asserted. “The roots of France are essentially Christian. I fully embrace France’s past and that special link that has long united our nation to the Church.”

Le Monde rightly took all this to mean that Sarkozy was also announcing his differences as president of the French Republic with the old guard of Catholic presidents, notably Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac, who led the fight during the debate over the European Constitution for a more hard-line secularist format la française to keep out any reference to Europe’s Christian roots in that document. In perhaps his most breathtaking maneuver, Sarkozy made a good case for a very different notion of what it should mean to believe in a lay Republic la française . For him, French culture should be more open to all the wisdom available in the various religious traditions of his people. He put this forward with all due respect for the nonbelievers in France but also with a breadth of spirit that made the old claims of a rigidly secularist public order as the only guarantor of liberty for all citizens look decidedly illiberal.

One editorial cartoon in French after the speech showed Sarkozy elbowing aside a George W. Bush carrying public symbols of Christianity. The message was clear if crude: This is one more way in which France is now under the thumb of Sarko l’américain . It remains to be seen if the twice-divorced and still-dating French president can bring off the highly ambitious effort to make public piety palatable in France again. But you have to admire the chutzpah of a man who himself has both Jewish and Catholic roots and a family that immigrated relatively recently and yet feels comfortable challenging the old French impieties. “In this paradoxical world obsessed with material comforts and starving for real meaning,” he said, “France needs convinced Catholics who are not afraid to affirm who they are and what they believe in.” He mentioned a number of religious orders who teach, encourage, form young people, and inspire hope and noble feeling all over the world¯activities, he says, that are quite astonishing, much needed especially in the modern world, and yet are often little recognized.

Some of his finer spiritual points at the Lateran were doubtless written by theological advisers. But Sarkozy seems to understand and, therefore, can convincingly express his beliefs. And who would have dared think that a hundred years after France led Europe into its secularist blind alley that a French president would sound the call to a kind of spiritual recalibration of Europe?

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History .

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