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April 03, 2011

French Conservatives to Debate Role of Religion, Secularity

by Lisa Bryant

France's ruling party is holding a debate Tuesday on the role of religion and secularity in France. The title may seem harmless enough, but it has sparked enormous controversy - with top religious leaders coming out against it.

France's ruling UMP party is calling it a debate on religion and secularity. But many people here see it as a debate about Islam - a debate that has deeply divided this country even before it began.

Even French Prime Minister Francois Fillon has kept his distance, letting it be know he would not attend the Tuesday  roundtable in Paris.

Speaking to supporters in the southern city of Marseille on Saturday, UMP Secretary General Jean Francois Cope - who is in charge of this debate - cast it as an effort to give an intellectual and philosophic dimension to the issue.

Cope said the roundtable would include proposals on establishing a code of secularity and religious freedom. Rules on secularity must be respected, he said - rules in classrooms, in sports, in hospitals.

But critics argue it simply adds to already existing tensions over Islam, France's second largest religion. In a joint statement last week, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Orthodox, Jewish and Buddhist leaders said the debate would simply add confusion to an already troubled period France was traversing.

And members of the political opposition say the debate is a thinly veiled attempt by the center-right party of President Nicolas Sarkozy to woo the far right, a year before presidential elections.

In a recent interview with France-Info radio, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, a member of the leading opposition Socialist Party, said everything was wrong about the secularity debate. He said it bolstered the cause of the far-right National Front party, which scored well in recent local elections.

The debate is also sensitive because it comes just a week before a French ban against face-covering Muslim veil - and other garments hiding the face - goes into effect.