Is France getting religion?

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Feb. 1 2005 11:55 AM

Is France Getting Religion?

In the immigrant suburbs of Paris, secularism is on the wane.

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He has also argued for amending France's law separating church and state, which turns 100 this year. The 1905 law bars any state funding of religious groups and is the cornerstone of French secularism. Amending it would allow for the financing of mosques. Unlike churches and synagogues, mosques weren't around to be funded before 1905, and so Islam has wound up relatively shortchanged in terms of real estate. The idea behind helping mosques is that doing so would bring Muslims more into the mainstream, thus countering extremism.

But France is not getting religion, at least not yet. So far, Sarkozy's foray into American-style public religiosity has gone over like a lead balloon. Whatever the French may do on their weekends, there has been no show of support for relaxing the state's strict secularism. The new ban on religious symbols in public schools is, on the whole, popular. And President Chirac has reiterated his support for the 1905 law numerous times.

Pastor Christian Capron at the Evangelical Assembly of the Pentecost in St. Denis
Pastor Christian Capron at the Evangelical Assembly of the Pentecost in St. Denis
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Moreover, both Capron, the pastor, and Fath, the sociologist, note that the French tend to see religions outside of the mainstream as "sects," and thus suspect. This extends to official policy: A parliamentary committee has indexed 173 sects to keep an eye on, among them Pentecostal churches.

So, the French state has drawn its line in the sand once again in a clash of civilizations that is not between West and East, or between Judeo-Christian culture and Islam, but between secularists and believers. The problem is, drawing a line in the sand against religion looks increasingly like drawing a line in the sand against immigrants. France has never done a particularly good job of integrating new arrivals, which is why the cultural trends in the halo of suburbs just outside Paris' périphérique can look so different from those in the Seventh Arrondissement, where museums and government ministries dot the Left Bank.

After the Sunday service, as the milling crowd outside the church resolves itself into carpools, a stranger named Noura comes up and kisses me on both cheeks. She says she found Jesus seven years ago after being brought up in an Arab Muslim home. "I was looking for God," she explains. "I was knocking on his door."

The drafters of the 1905 law were convinced that religion had no future. "They had just come out of a 19th century … that predicted the death of God. The republicans thought the churches were going to empty," said historian Emile Poulat, recently interviewed in the newsweekly Valeurs Actuelles. Indeed, some of the drafters thought that with state funding pulled, religion would collapse.

That collapse has yet to take place. Sarkozy, who has been praised for his fresh thinking on crime and the economy, may yet prove prescient on religion, too. As the global south heads north in a big way, it brings its faith. The state can bar religion from public life, but the crowd knocking on the door is only going to grow.

Elisabeth Eaves is the author ofBare and a staff writer at Forbes.com.

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