In December of 2007 during a trip to Rome, the president of France made an appeal for a "positive secularity." Benedict XVI called the president's wording a "fine expression" when he visited France the following year.
President Nicolas Sarkozy is now looking at another nuance of this secularity. He wants a national debate to examine "laïcité" and how it relates to Islam -- an issue expected to carry weight in the nation's 2012 elections .
Muslims make up perhaps as much as 10% of France's population of nearly 65 million. And according to Sarkozy, the growing presence and influence of Islam in France is not something to be ignored.
His party, the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), has organized a convention for April 5 on worship in a secular republic, and particularly Muslim worship.
In a Feb. 16 speech to UMP deputies, the president criticized "a growing gulf between the media portrayal of Islam and the preoccupations of the French people." He suggested that the immigration issue was ignored in the 80s with unwelcome consequences. "It was a taboo subject," he said. "The same thing is happening with Islam in France right now."
Sarkozy wants some concrete proposals this year on issues such as where Muslims worship -- a question that has growing relevance because of some Muslims accustoming themselves to praying on the street, ostensibly bec ause the mosques are not big enough to hold them all.
"We need to have a debate on prayer meetings in the streets," Sarkozy told the UMP. "In a secular country, we cannot tolerate having a public call to prayer."
Winds of change
France is legally secular, with a 1905 law on separation of religion and state that stipulates the government does not recognize or subsidize any religion.
However, the secretary of state for housing, Benoist Apparu, floated the idea of government aid in constructing mosques.
The minister of budget, François Baroin, however, said any change to the 1905 law would be opening a Pandora's Box. He affirmed there is no change on the government's agenda.
Adding his view in a Feb. 17 interview with Le Figaro, Alain Juppe, who has just been named the foreign minister, had this to say: "Republican law must be applied in conditions of equality for all. Diversity certainl y exists, but the republican principle [...] is that the law cannot accept differentiations based on religious or ethnic criteria." "In regard to rights, it is imperative to affirm that Muslims, like Catholics, Jews, Protestants and the rest, have the right to be able to practice their faith," he added.
He also spoke of duties, such as respect for the values of the republic, particularly "equality between man and woman."
The former prime minister also called for prudence. "It is necessary to conduct and control this debate because it can go off in all directions. Islam is France's second religion and its stigmatization is not conceivable."
A former minister of justice who now is a member of the European Parliament, Rachida Dati, shared similar caution. "The debate on Islam, which is not a problem for me, is pertinent. But it is necessary to be careful, and it is important to say it, so as not to stigmatize Islam a s a religion and not stigmatize Muslims, who in the first place are French," she told France 2.
One or many?
One thing is clear: German Chancellor Angela Merkel in October of 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron, in his Feb. 5 address at the 47th Conference on Security in Munich, as well as President Sarkozy have rejected "multi-culturalism" or what derives from it.
"We do not want a society in which communities coexist one beside the other," Sarkozy said Feb. 10. "When one arrives in France one accepts incorporation in a single community, the national community."
But a multicultural and multiethnic society was defended by three ecologist politicians -- Esther Benbassa, Noel Mamere and Eva Joly, of Europe Ecologie. "Integration and assimilation are authoritarian movements that come from above, which do not take into consideration the human realities," they said in a public forum published Jan. 27 in the newspaper Liberation.
The trio made an appeal in favor of what they call "a national secularity that recognizes the part of ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic membership."