Sarkozy's odes to religion are stirring controversy

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Suddenly, faith, once an entirely private affair, has infused the [French] president's political discourse. In Riyadh on Jan. 14, [Nicolas] Sarkozy referenced the Lord 13 times in a speech to Saudi Arabia's Consultative Council, evoking a "transcendent God who is in the thoughts and the heart of every man." That was news to France's estimated 15 million atheists and agnostics, a quarter of the country.

The revival has touched a nerve among a large swath of the French population. Polled online, 73 percent disagreed with Sarkozy's pronouncement on school-teachers versus pastors. Last week 60 unions, teachers' associations and others launched a Web petition arguing that Sarkozy, "in mixing personal convictions and his presidential function, undermines the secularism of the republic." The petition drew 20,000 signatures in its first four days. Politicians are fanning the flames. Centrist leader François Bayrou, himself a devout Roman Catholic, forewarned that challenging secularism in France would open a Pandora's box of latent problems. Socialist leader François Hollande accused Sarkozy of using religion to sell nuclear energy to Muslim countries.

Sarkozy's rhetoric is reopening deep wounds. As French secularism historian Jean Baubérot notes, "The battle between the priest and the schoolteacher lasted centuries! Sure, in another country, that point would be much less important. But in France, it resuscitates a battle that only ended decades ago." The law separating church and state dates to 1905. Since French secularism evolved to counter the dominance of a single Catholic Church, he explains, the secular sensibility in France is less relaxed than in the United States, where diverse Protestant churches have historically coexisted. In France, state evocations of God still come off as partisan.

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