Sarkozy call to change secular law stirs furore

28th October 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Oct 28 (AFP) - Nicolas Sarkozy, France's ambitious finance minister who sees himself as president one day, has suggested shaking up his country's century-old separation of state and religion, partly as a way of reaching out to disaffected Muslim youths.

 PARIS, Oct 28 (AFP) - Nicolas Sarkozy, France's ambitious finance minister who sees himself as president one day, has suggested shaking up his country's century-old separation of state and religion, partly as a way of reaching out to disaffected Muslim youths.

He makes the suggestion in a book on the subject due out Friday which asks whether 1905 legislation enshrining France's strictly secular governance is "obsolete".

The 172-page book has sparked a furious debate among France's political classes and main religions.

Based on interviews with Sarkozy, its central idea of scrapping the section of the law banning the state from subsidising religions runs counter to principles adhered to by virtually all MPs, both in the conservative ruling UMP party and on the left-wing opposition benches.

But Sarkozy, the country's most popular politician, relishes being the focus of debate and has used it to elevate his profile to a point where he is seen as President Jacques Chirac's most likely challenger in 2007 elections.

In the book - written by a philosopher, Thibaud Collin, and a Dominican priest, Philippe Verdin - Sarkozy ponders how to "invent Islam in France" and turn it into "a precious example for all the Muslim world" while maintaining its basic identity.

"One of the biggest challenges in the century that is beginning is the struggle in the Muslim world between moderate Islam and the fundamentalism of certain currents," he is quoted as saying.

He says that in French suburbs with disaffected Muslim communities, "it is much preferable for youth to have spiritual hope than to have in their head the religion of violence, drugs or money."

He argues that, more generally, the state should be allowed to help finance the construction of mosques and other religious buildings, especially those of minority faiths struggling to assert themselves in a predominantly Roman Catholic country.

French Justice Minister Dominique Perben summed up the resistance of most politicians by telling a Protestant magazine, Reform, quoted in Le Figaro newspaper, that "I really don't see the usefulness of rewriting this law. To those who want to modify it, I reply: let's be careful."

In his previous job as interior minister - a role which also put him in charge of handling relations with religions - Sarkozy set up an umbrella body for Muslim associations in France and deployed police units to crack down on crime in suburbs with significant Muslim immigrant populations.

As finance minister he has moved with similar zeal, often gaining more attention than Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Chirac by stepping beyond the traditional bounds of his office.

Tackling a fundamental principle of the way France is run is just another example as he positions himself to take over as UMP leader next month - a change that will force him to give up ministerial duties.

Chirac, who jealously guards his traditional domain of charting France's overriding principles, has made no public comment on Sarkozy's proposition, but Le Figaro said the private response from his office was a firm 'no'.

The newspaper added that, according to sources close to the finance minister, the next big speech expected from Sarkozy was one on homosexuals in society.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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