PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy's increasingly frequent and positive references to God and faith have drawn fire from critics who accuse him of violating France's separation of church and state.
Sarkozy, a taboo-breaker whose whirlwind love life has distracted the media for weeks, broke with traditional presidential reserve about religion to stress France's Christian roots in a speech in a Rome basilica just before Christmas.
In Riyadh on Monday, he hailed Islam as "one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has known" and described his Saudi hosts as rulers who "appeal to the basic values of Islam to combat the fundamentalism that negates them".
His praise for a kingdom that enforces and propagates a strict version of Islam, during a visit aimed at securing lucrative export contracts, was the last straw for his critics.
"This is not respect for the separation of church and state," Socialist opposition leader Francois Hollande said.
"This is an ideological stand that makes religion into an instrument to promote French products (such as) civilian nuclear plants for Muslim countries," he said. "Mixing religion and foreign policy is illogical and wrong."
Jean-Louis Debre, a leading Gaullist who is now head of the Constitutional Council, indirectly chided Sarkozy by saying the 1905 law separating church and state was a good one and that it was "opportune to make sure its balance is not upset".
FAITH EQUALS HOPE FOR SARKOZY
At issue is Sarkozy's break with a French tradition that sees faith strictly as a private affair. This began with the 1905 law and grew into a kind of political correctness that made bringing religion into public affairs a major taboo.
The president calls this a negative "laicite" -- the French term for church-state separation implies that taboo as well -- and wants a "positive laicite" that values the hope that faith brings and allows state subsidies for faith-based groups.
The dispute flared up in the National Assembly on Wednesday, with Socialist Jean Glavany attacking the Riyadh speech: "A speech citing God not only on every page, but on every line, creates a fundamental problem for the republic."
Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie responded by saying the government wanted "to help all spiritualities to express themselves, including those based on atheism".
Although the 1905 law aimed at undercutting the vast influence the Roman Catholic Church once wielded in France, Church leaders now are reserved about any reforms that could upset the status quo and revive anti-clerical movements.
By contrast, the five-million-strong Muslim minority, the largest in Europe, would appreciate reforms that would help them finance mosque building and expand training for imams.
The twice-divorced president defines himself as a "cultural Catholic", an infrequent churchgoer who says he values the moral and social role that religion can play in society.
"Someone who believes is someone who hopes," he said in the speech in Rome's Basilica of Saint John Lateran. "It is in the republic's interest to have many men and women who hope."