PARIS (Reuters) - Religion has returned to the public sphere in proudly secularist France and Islam, religious ignorance and the late Pope John Paul all had something to do with it.
And, although he is twice-divorced and only goes to church occasionally, President Nicolas Sarkozy is also doing his part to keep it there.
The separation of church and state is deep in the political DNA in this traditionally Catholic country. Regular Sunday Mass attendance is down in the single figures. Priests almost never wear a Roman collar outside of their churches.
But things have changed over the past decade. After being all but stamped out of the public sphere, the question of faith has returned to political debates and gained prominence in the media. It’s a minority voice, but is louder and more confident.
Pope Benedict’s visit to France this weekend highlights that new-found confidence among Roman Catholics, the cultural majority in this country even if less than 10 percent of them are regular Sunday churchgoers.
“Religion has taken a much bigger place in the public sphere in the past 10 years,” said Frederic Lenoir, editor-in-chief of the bimonthly magazine Le Monde des Religions.
“We were used to it being a private phenomenon,” he said. “People could believe and practice, but nobody was interested. Journalists didn’t care. But then we realized there was a kind of return of faith in the public sphere, because of Islam.”
Now the second-largest religion in France, Islam became an issue in the 1980s and 1990s as more women donned headscarves, demanded separate hours in public swimming pools and refused to be treated by male doctors in hospitals.
“The increasing visibility of Islam created a growing feeling of identity among Catholics,” Lenoir said. “They felt invaded by traditions and customs that were profoundly strange.”
The turning point came in 1997, when Pope John Paul came to Paris for the World Youth Day Catholic festival. Over a million people attended an open-air Mass, twice as many as expected.
“All of a sudden, that gave the media -- and French society in general -- the feeling that religion was important and one had to reckon with it,” Lenoir said.
“Contrary to what the sociologists had been saying for years, it wasn’t a phenomenon that was disappearing. To the contrary, it was a phenomenon that had never disappeared, it had just gone underground a bit.”
John Paul’s visit energized French Catholicism. After years of keeping a low profile as its numbers steadily sank, it began acting like other minorities and demanding its voice be heard.
The bishops began speaking out clearly against attacks on Christianity and suing advertisers who misused images of Jesus.
At the same time, prominent “cultural Catholics” -- not necessarily believers, but proud of France’s cultural heritage -- began warning that schoolchildren raised without any knowledge of religion could no longer understand French culture.
Regis Debray, an erstwhile leftist comrade in arms of Che Guevara, rang the alarm bell early in this decade and began calling for state schools to offer secular courses in religion to help pupils understand classical French art and literature.
Max Gallo, a popular historian who was a communist in his youth, is another prominent intellectual preaching this message.
Lenoir himself has contributed to this trend. His magazine covers faith from a secular point of view and his latest book Le Christ Philosophe (Christ the Philosopher) examines the ethical impact Christian thinking has had on Western civilization.
Starting in 2002, when he became interior minister, Sarkozy began stressing the positive role religion could play in giving hope and meaning to alienated youths, especially the young Muslims in France’s poorer suburbs.
“When he was interior minister, people said it was interesting, new, courageous and possibly dangerous,” Lenoir said. “When he repeated it as president, there was an uproar.”
Sarkozy kept up the controversy last December with a speech in Rome that outraged French secularists by saying it was better to have believers in society because they were more hopeful.
He then gave a speech in Riyadh in January praising Saudi Arabia as a defender of moderate Islam and speaking of “the transcendent God who is in the thoughts and hearts of everyone.”
In comments welcoming Benedict to France, Sarkozy said it would be “a folly” to ignore his country’s Christian roots.