Paulina Velasco on Religion and International Affairs in France

It is often difficult to discuss France’s politics in terms of their relation to religion considering the fact that laïcité, or France’s strict relegation of religion to the private sphere, is tenaciously upheld as a national value, right up there with liberty, equality, and fraternity. France’s laïcité is very different from the United States’ separation of church and state because it is much more skeptical of any and all intrusion of particular religions into national political culture.
Both countries, however, are most definitely not exempt from the influence on political actions and discourse of politicians’ personal faiths or of talk of spiritual-like national objectives. That is to say, there is often a sense of mission and a calling to defend certain values for both American and French political leaders. 

I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture here at Sciences Po Paris by the Berkley Center’s director, Professor Tom Banchoff, on “the religious dimension of the American sense of mission in international affairs” that made me realize the role of religion in American foreign politics that cannot be denied, and that was greeted with some degree of criticism by the French audience. As Professor Banchoff highlighted, American political discourse is threaded with Judeo-Christian references. The calls to be the “light on the hill” to lead the world in the defense of freedom and individual rights has led to what we now consider a sort of American exceptionalism, which has been appealed to as well as challenged in the past years with the American intervention in the war on terror and recently in Libya. 

Professor Banchoff’s speech made me reflect the past few weeks on whether France itself has a similar self-conception of its role in international affairs, considering that it is also a major player on the world stage, as has been seen in the recent discussion on what to do in Libya and Syria. While France denies all reference to religion in its internal and external politics, it has come to my attention that France has still fashioned for itself a role comparable to that of the United States as a defender of human rights. 

France’s equivalent in terms of political discourse, at least, is its appeals to the Universal Declaration of human Rights, of which France was a key creator in 1948 within the United Nations, and to its own Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, fundamental document of the French Revolution and of the French spirit, I dare say, and of which I have seen numerous lovely paintings and engravings in almost every museum in Paris. The French, to put it somewhat informally, are all about defending their individual liberty, a value that manifests itself all the way from the pedestrian fighting violently against the driver for his right of way along the Boulevard St. Germain to the French diplomatic discourse on the recent violence in the democratizing African states. 

For example, for one of my courses here at Sciences Po, we have weekly assignments where we pretend to be French diplomatic spokespeople while the class poses questions on a particular subject, a task that is more difficult than it seems because we have to stay in character and not give our personal or politically biased responses to very pertinent foreign affair issues. It seems that each time we end up citing “the defense of human basic human rights and liberties” as French diplomacy’s motivations for “sharply denouncing” the violence in Syria or in Libya or in Egypt. It would certainly be interesting to ask where this strong belief in human rights originates, because it may very well be that this deist, Enlightenment concept can be said to be religious at its foundation. 

Nevertheless, today it seems to be the distinguishing feature for French foreign political discourse the way American exceptionalism based on Judeo-Christian traditions is for the United States. I wonder if I might possibly conclude that the self-constructed “religion” on which France bases its foreign politics, in word especially, is the defense of universal human rights.

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