February 14, 2008 / 3:58 PM / 10 years ago

Sarkozy ignites row over religion, Holocaust study

<p>France's President Nicolas Sarkozy attends a news conference with Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Saint Georges de l'Oyapock in French Guiana February 12, 2008. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer</p>

PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy has triggered a row over religion by saying faith has a place in the public sphere and schoolchildren should study the 11,000 French Jewish child victims of the Holocaust.

Sarkozy has angered secularists with repeated praise for faith and references to France’s Christian roots, and he told a French Jewish organization that the violence and wars of the 20th century were due to an “absence of God”.

Ten-year-old pupils “should know the name and life story of a child who died in the Holocaust”, he told the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) on Wednesday.

He attracted criticism on Thursday from two camps -- secularists keen to keep religion out of public discourse and those worried that pupils could be traumatized by studying the Holocaust through child victims with whom they could identify.

“The president should not turn into a kind of preacher, as he is doing now,” said left-wing Senator Jean-Luc Melenchon. Centrist deputy Francois Bayrou predicted “a clash between France’s values and those of Nicolas Sarkozy”.

“I don’t think we can impose remembrance,” former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said. Having pupils “adopt” a Holocaust victim was “something very heavy to carry around”.

Sarkozy’s recent speeches to Catholics and Muslims prompted charges he was violating France’s separation of church and state. He was the first French president to address the CRIF annual dinner, a role the prime minister normally takes.

Sarkozy says he is a lapsed Catholic. Previous presidents avoided talking about faith even if they were believers themselves.

He argues people of faith have a hope and purpose missing in modern society due to the “end of ideology” after the Cold War and the spread of disillusionment in consumer society.

He told the CRIF his goal was not to tear down the wall between church and state but to help faith communities solve practical problems they face in dealing with the state.

In his speech, Sarkozy took a step back from a comment he made in a Rome basilica that secular teachers could not replace the clergy in teaching moral values to children.

“I never said that secular morality is inferior to religious morality,” he said. “My conviction is they complement each other and that, when it is difficult to discern good and evil, ... it is good to take inspiration from both of them.”

Education Minister Xavier Darcos said the Holocaust plan would “create an identification between a child of today and one of the same age who was deported and gassed.”

Pupils would conduct “an enquiry investigation into the (victim‘s) family, the milieu and the circumstances in which the child died”.

Editing by Richard Balmforth and Robert Woodward

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