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France: Religion in a Secular State



Earlier this week France’s Education Minister Gabriel Affal announced a ban on abayas – the long, flowing dresses worn by some Muslim women – in public schools.  Secularism is a key concept in France’s Constitution, and religious markers considered conspicuous or “ostentatious”, including Islamic headscarves, large Christian crosses, and Jewish yarmulkes (skullcaps) have been banned from public schools since 2004 under French law.  This is to uphold its strict band of secularism known as laicity considered a cornerstone value of the State for more than a century.  It was first enshrined in law in 1905 and officialised the strict separation between religion and the State and guaranteed freedom of religion and freedom conscience.

A spokesman for the government, Olivier Vera said on Monday that the abayas was “obviously religious and a political sign” and that he deemed the wearing of it to be an act of “proselytizing”.  Not so long ago, another minister said in a television interview that halal food aisles in supermarkets represent a form of religious separatism.

The principle of laicity is instilled early.  Every public school student is taught the same curriculum from first grade through high school. Schools are seen as a crucible where citizens are forged, a place that instills values, freedom of expression, and equality between men and women, along with reading, writing, and math.  The watchword is universalis, referring to an abstract notion of citizenship to which all must subscribe.

Then Rome: Now Mecca  

The notion of communautarisme or defining yourself by your particular ethnic or religious identity, is seen as corrosive to the policy.  The French State recognizes people as individuals, not as members of groups, and does not formally collect census data or ethnicity – that would be seen as a betrayal of universalism and a violation of privacy.   In France, individuals are expected to suppress fundamental parts of themselves in public life.

Secularism originally represented  the victory of anti-clerical republicanism, which, ever since the 1789 French Revolution, had stigmatised the Roman Catholic Church as a bastion of reaction, ignorance, and superstition.   In 1905 Islam was on no one’s mind: the target was the Catholic Church. The conflict with the Roman Catholic Church is long dead, with the result that secularism has come to stand for something else: managing ethnic differences in a society that is diametrically opposed to the community-based approach advocated by Britain and the United States.

The robust secularism of Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party sees Muslims as an internal enemy whose lack of French values means that many will gravitate towards religious extremism.  Laicity which was meant to separate the French State from the influence of the Roman Catholic Church has now become a rallying cry to suppress Islamic extremism seen as an enemy of French culture.       

In his book  Beyond Radical Secularism, Pierre Manent argues that France’s dearly held secularism is Catholic in nature because “society can never be neutral.”  He adds, “French secularity has not neutralized French society as to religion; it has remained a society of a Christian mark stamped mainly but not exclusively by Catholic Christianity and includes also significant Protestant and Jewish elements.”  He explains that until recently even widely divergent idealogues “shared the same France, even if they did not see it in the same light.”

For Manent the crisis for France’s “secular” identity has come from the large influx of Muslim immigrants who have for generations rejected even the pretence of a neutral public square.  In France therefore Muslims are widely perceived as threatening, based in large part on cultural differences between Muslims and rooted French.  Since 2015 and mounting fears of violent Islamic extremism there have been even more questions as to whether Muslim immigrants can integrate into historically Christian communities.

Hard Lessons

While Christianity and Islam share a common cultural legacy that enables them to communicate with each other, they nevertheless represent different civilisational tendencies that stem from their religious differences. Religion is not just an individual matter; it is generally also a social one and has the capacity to shape whole cultures and civilisations.

The French establishment sees laicity as a way of preventing social fracture. However, a hard commitment to laicity may cause as many fissures as it heals.  If the history of religion reveals anything, it is that attempts at suppression tend to strengthen the determination of believers.

One of the most popular claims against Muslims is that simply because they are actually more likely to practise their religion than their Catholic counterparts, they have somehow failed to embrace the norms of laicity.   There is both a lesson and a warning here.

In one of his  prophetic and insightful books, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, and Islam, published in 2007, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) wrote, “Multiculturism cannot survive without common foundations, without the sense of direction offered by our own values.”  In 2006 he said that no Pope had ever dared to say that there is a link between violence and Islam.  Radical Islamists responded with violent protests!

If Christianity fails, something else will succeed.

Written by Marie–Therese Cryan

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