Participant 1: ‘From the formal requests […] there were many Muslims, but in that city there is no mosque. The chief of staff – in an unofficial capacity – tried to work with a city council official to form a cultural association through which to raise funds. In the meantime, the municipality offered a room to meet. We are always on a razor’s edge with regard to secularism. It was more like a little mosque, disguised as a cultural association.
When people talk about prayer rooms in Bordeaux, it is always about there not being any. So, if there is a new one opening in town, it is certain that the news will be spread quickly by word of mouth. When they started organising events like those around Eid, the number of people who turned up at the association grew exponentially every year. There came a point when we couldn’t handle it anymore. […] We had to refuse to lend the room for security reasons.
It caused an outcry. It was racism blah blah blah. I asked the chief of staff for an explanation and he simply replied that it wasn’t doable anymore because of security issues. At that point we needed to get advice at the Agglomeration level [so higher up in the public administration for urban areas] to get an idea of how to manage groups that require a place of worship. But then again you’re on a razor's edge.
I don’t know if counties fund places of worship. […] But it is certain that accepting foreign money from Saudi Arabia is out of the question and at the same time the city cannot afford to finance it. It was like a never ending story. Politicians started to raise the issue in official meetings. I think all this reminds me a bit of the issue we have with the Roma. We land the problem on the neighbouring city. […]Cultural issues are addressed as a problem to be solved; not as an existing reality. […] The question of living together is not really considered.
Participant 1: ‘In my opinion, I would say that the religious issue is always really sensitive. You can’t offend or discriminate people because of their religion. But it is totally clear that in France religion and the state are separate. Personally, I think religions themselves should exist [and be practiced] but certain rules should apply. So if somebody comes and asks for a room to meet or for anything else, we have to be clear about who is who and what is what.
We have this new phenomenon emerging in our society where certain foreign countries interfere in our everyday life in France, and everywhere in Europe. It radicalises the neighbourhoods. So, the religious terrain is really complicated because, on the one hand, you can’t discriminate and, on the other, we cannot allow people who are there to do damage. So, if I refuse them it is because the people sitting in front of me are either dishonest or radicals or are politicised in some way.’
Participant 1: ‘Nearly everything depends on when the request for the venue is put forward. So, think about all the different religions and let’s focus on the three most important ones and their most important celebrations. There might be people who prefer celebrating in groups and I don’t know if it is the case that people ask for a room at Christmas, to celebrate Jewish or Muslim holidays. Then, we find out whether it’s possible or not, and that is the most interesting information. Can we organise these meetings in the rooms belonging to the municipality? Is that doable? If I had a suitable room for this type of events, why not?’
Participant 2: ‘I would say that we should differentiate between an occasional event and repetitive ones. If I use it once I can use the space for a different purpose, but if it becomes a regular thing then it turns into a regular practice and that isn’t the same thing. Plus, you have to look at the duration, the rhythm; many things come into play. One event is fine but if they want to repeat it, no, because then it will turn into a place of worship, and that isn’t possible.’
Participant 3: ‘For example, Room X, they let people borrow it on December 31, for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, for Easter and for the great prayer of Eid. And it is a public venue. It has to be requested via the Mayor’s office.’
Participant 4: ‘I agree with Madame [Participant 3], I would discuss the matter with the applicant. Normally there are rules to be followed when one lends a venue. So we don’t have the right to refuse access to the room even if it's for a cause.... It is free for everyone to access.’
Participant 5: ‘The administration must put forward the terms and conditions to those who use the room, and at the slightest deviation, whether they talk about politics when they were meant to be holding a religious event, or if it excludes others, then the partnership is over.’
The statements in context
Prior to organising and holding the focus groups, we conducted interviews with key individuals in each place in order to scope out the main issues that could be upsetting community life. Throughout these interviews, and also at the citizen meetings, one particular issue kept coming up without our prompting it: ‘laïcité’, France’s activist model of secularism.
When we asked what secularism meant to our participants, they all answered that it was about respecting oneself and others, about tolerance, dignity and freedom. Thus, laïcité is seen as protection for everyone – religious believers and non-believers, regular churchgoers and those who aren’t –; what gives them the possibility to exist in an environment where they may or may not belong to the majority.
In all of our focus groups we gave our participants a series of scenarios. In one of them they played the role of a mayor who had to decide whether to allow a public venue to be used for particular, cultural practices that could also be seen as religious. Laïcité was the starting point for everyone’s answer. Interestingly, we observed two contrasting approaches to the matter.
The first is a very open approach which claims that certain particular demands can be legitimate and fall under individual liberties. They are therefore difficult to refuse as the individual cannot be extracted or separated from their belonging to multiple groups and categories, and these can even be an advantage in creating social connections. This positive approach to laïcité is criticised by its opponents as a utopian one that denies the dangers and problems that could emerge when it comes to society’s official acceptance of the differences that underpin the demand.
The second is a much more restrictive approach claiming that particular demands are not legitimate, that they run interference between a neutral Republic and a generic citizen—in other words that it goes against the state’s egalitarian obligations. Making concessions would amount to opening Pandora’s box. Here laïcité is seen as synonymous with the neutrality of the public sphere. This kind of interpretation of laïcité has become the weapon of choice for the FN—by aggressively brandishing this version the FN has essentially claimed that French values and Republican values are one and the same. Republican laïcité is therefore used to exclude any non-Christian religious and cultural claims.
These excerpts were translated by Laura Drexler.