June 9, 2009

Sarkozy and Obama

Photo rights here.

The elections this weekend were not the only big event in Paris. Obama was here too. He was here, of course, for the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in Normandy, but his trip did include time in Paris. When Obama was invited, Sarkozy had every intention of capitalizing on the moment for good PR, and thus he invited the Obamas for several formal events during their time in France. For the large part, President Obama refused these invitations. Some cite Obama's refusal as a means of avoiding giving the public impression of campaiging with Sarkozy just before the EU elections. Sarkozy's desire to use Obama's political capital would indeed explain why the Queen of England was not initially invited to the proceedings for D-Day. Sarkozy, you rascal.

In a classic spin, Sarkozy used the little time he had with Obama to insist on the fact that Obama was not there for a photo op, and suddenly, neither was he. In his words: we have "autre chose à faire que de belles photos sur papier glacé" (other things to do besides take beautiful photos for glossy paper).

With Obama's speech in Cairo as background, Sarkozy was given the opportunity to align himself with Obama or distance himself from Obama's positions.

First, Obama's words directly from his speech:
Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.

When Sarkozy was asked about his stance on these words, he stated that he completely agreed with Obama. This may not seem controversial, but in France, it decidedly is.

Sarkozy's words:
"Je suis totalement d'accord avec le discours du président Obama, y compris sur la question du voile", a déclaré M. Sarkozy. "Je précise juste deux choses. En France, une jeune fille qui veut porter le voile peut le faire. C'est sa liberté. Nous mettons deux limites, parce que nous sommes un Etat laïque. La première, c'est qu'au guichet des administrations les fonctionnaires ne doivent pas avoir de signe visible de leur appartenance religieuse (...). C'est ce que nous appelons l'impartialité de l'administration, la laïcité. (...) La deuxième réserve que nous avons, c'est : que les jeunes filles musulmanes portent le voile, ce n'est absolument pas un problème, à condition que ce soit une décision émanant de leur libre choix, et non une obligation qui leur soit faite par leur famille ou par leur entourage."

(I agree completely with President Obama's speech, including his thoughts on the question of the veil. Two things should be specified. In France, a young girl who wants to wear the veil can do so. It is her freedom. We place two limits on this freedom because we are a secular state. The first is that government civil servants must not have any visible religious symbol in their appearance. We insist on the impartiality of the government, on secularism. The second reservation is that wearing the veil must be a young muslim woman's choice, her free choice and not an obligation from her family).

In his statement, Sarkozy puts himself in a tricky position for two reasons. First, he contradicts his own statement of 'completely agreeing' with Obama by significantly qualifying this position. Second, he is part of an administration and government which inherently do not agree with Obama's position on this issue. The 2004 French legislation on religious symbols in schools is testament to this. Hence, Sarkozy has been subsequently criticized for his superficial alliance with Obama's stance.

The question of secularism in France has been continually fascinating to me. I've had various heated discussions with my French friends about this issue. As is often the case with one's own culture, it is easy to believe that it is representative. In this case, I assumed that the positive tolerance (multiculturalism) that we see in the United States was the normative means of addressing religion in the western world. I assumed that everyone could come to the table (or to school) with their differences showing, as long as no one's differences were forbidden. (And to be fair, this is not perfectly practiced in the US either). However, in France, secularism does not mean multiculturalism or everyone having an equal right to displaying their religion. Secularism means sameness, in the sense that all kids have no visible version of religion at all.

To be sure, there are important historical precedents for this manifestation of secularism in Europe and in France. The public space as a space free of religion is an important cultural value because of France's past. A citizen in France is expected to be French before being anything else, including his/her religion - this is the universalist model of citizenship. This extends to race, gender, sexuality and any other identity category.

Still, the regulation of religious symbols or the veil in schools remains unsettling to me.

Some religions can't be left behind only to be practiced in the private sphere. And aren't children stripped of all religious symbols exhibiting something after all (if not their own religion)? They are, in essence, athée (atheist) in appearance. Isn't this also a belief system?


Jill said...

This stuff is facinating to me. I want more.

Julie said...

I agree Em and find the fact that France has laws against wearing the hijab problematic. Especially when the notion of sameness inevitably excludes immigrants because they can't leave their skin behind when they enter the public sphere.

Brad said...

Great post. Very insightful on the French culture and politics. It is an interesting time to have a front row seat to the changes in the world et la belle France.

Isabelle said...

You can't compare how France and the US deal with religion in public life.

In France, religions and the State have been officialy separated since 1905. According to a poll published in the Financial Time in 2006, 32% of the French population is atheist, 32% agnostic and 27% believe in "a god".
And only 5% of Catholics attend mass every Sunday...

Although in the US religions and the State are also officialy separated, the country remains deeply religious to me. 80% of the population believe in God, and there are a lot of references to God in everyday life (like "God bless America" or "In God we trust").

This is what's unsettling to me, calling the name of God on every possible occasion.

I don't understand your point when you write that some religions can't be left behind only to be practiced in the private sphere. What do you mean exactly?

And finally @ Julie: why is it problematic that France has laws against wearing the hijab? I remind you that it's only at school and in the administration, and that it's been proven that the schoolgirls who want to wear the hijab at school are terribly influenced by their families, and that it's very seldom their personal choice.

Emilie said...


Thank you for your thoughts.

France's overall apathy toward religion is clear. America's propensity for allowing religious influence in many spheres is also clear. The fact that most Americans believe in God is irrefutable. But none of that was my point.

First, of course I can compare different versions of secularism. My starting point was the perspective of President Sarkozy; in this example he was doing just that - comparing his view with Obama's.

Your words 'it's been proven' are unconvincing on a number of levels. Western men and women who would prescribe young muslim women to remove their veils are often mapping their political interests onto these women in a colonialist move. It is certainly not for M. Sarkozy (nor for you) to decide whether or not these women are being forced to wear veils. It is paternalistic and audacious to assume these women are not making choices for themselves.

Have you asked the question, "what does wearing a veil mean to these women themselves?" and "why is wearing a veil in all public spaces important to these women?" Do you assume that all femininity and religion get translated just as they do in your head?

When I said that some religions can't be left behind, the blatant example here is indeed the veil. And the significance of that is related to the questions I pose above.

As you can see, my blog is just a place where I post photos of Paris, talk about being married to a Frenchman and give my ideas and thoughts about the differences between American and French culture. My intent is not claim that my view is representative or that I am an expert. It is just to express my ideas.

Isabelle said...

Of course, I don't at all intend to say that you can't express you ideas on your own blog ;)

My point is that the Americans and the French (in this very example) have a completely different point of view on the question.

I don't mind that muslim girls or women wear the veil in their everyday life (I know a lot who do!), but France's law is such that they can't wear their veil in public schools or the administration (if they work for an administration). That's the law, whether they like it or not.

And I maintain that wearing a veil isn't always their personal choice, and it's absolutely not paternalistic from my part.

I really encourage you to take a look at the following site (ni putes ni soumises), there are on the home page 2 articles concerning Obama's speech in Cairo, and what the point of you of young French women is on this subject:


Emilie said...

Cool, thanks for the link Isabelle.

That's my point too: that American and French cultures are very different in this respect.

...and that's why it is silly for Sarkozy to say, "je suis totalement d'accord avec le discours du president Obama"...

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...