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French reactionary hypocrisy – the hijab, gay marriage and secularism

The different reactions to the ban on burqas and to the legalisation of same-sex marriage lay bare the hypocrisy of the French right.

Aurelien Mondon
2 May 2013
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Protesters march against gay marriage on April 16 in Paris. Demotix/Mastrangelo Reino. All rights reserved.

In the lead-up to the vote on same-sex marriage in France, protesters held their ‘gallant last stand’ against equality. While the law was passed, these protests have made clear the hypocritical argument of a secular France that is 'blind to all religions'.

Since the Revolution of 1789, France has claimed with great pride to be the country of secularism. It is true that the revolutionaries, through the Declaration of the Rights of Man and even the Terror, placed a strong emphasis on freedom of religion to liberate the country from the reactionary and oppressive influence of the Church. In 1905, the third Republic anchored secularism deeper into French political life with a law declaring that ‘the Republic ensures freedom of conscience. It guarantees freedom of worship limited only by [...] rules in the interest of public order’.

Since its inception, this law has been regarded by most as one of the pillars of the Republic, and more recently, as a pillar of national identity. But French history has also been filled with reactions to this move towards a more secular society. 1905 made a comeback recently when the French government decided to legislate against the wearing of religious symbols in schools, as they apparently posed a threat to public order. In 2004, to help French children on their way to secular emancipation, the French government decided to force some to give up the symbols of their beliefs at the school gates.

Some argued at the time that this law was discriminatory, as it was in fact aimed at a particular kind of student whose religious habits were perceived as threatening. Others argued that emancipation should not be force-fed, and that there were groups for whom the results could only be negative. For those who were obliged to wear these symbols of their religion, this law potentially imposed further alienation and the risk of being pulled out of school.

Those who had made their own free choice to wear such symbols would find that the promise of liberty, equality and fraternity only applied when they gave up on their individuality. But for the defenders, this was a misreading of the law, since it applied equally to all, and was a key measure in the liberation of women – who apparently only suffer from religious sexism in France.

In 2011, the French government went further, legislating to ban more religious proselytism from French society, and more precisely from its streets. While it was again coated in innocuous terms, this law was soon labelled the ‘burqa law’ as some argued its real aim was the defence of the French nationality against hordes of veiled women, forcing their faith upon weak secularist minds. In times of economic crisis, high unemployment and social unrest, the media presented this issue as front page material, and parliamentarians as one of the main items on their agenda. A slight overreaction? Perhaps. After all, French government services themselves noted that less than 400 women wore the burqa in the country.

Still, France was portrayed as having been saved from another lethal threat and the flame of French secularism as burning brighter than ever - a beacon of light for all rational nations of the world. France was not against one particular religion, it stood against all religions when they impacted on the public sphere and the freedom of its citizens, albeit an enforced version of freedom. Everyone was confident that France would be just as ‘incorruptible’ if any other religion would ever try to sway its progressive course. France: free again from religious oppression!

The respite was short, though, and a new attack on secularism is occurring as these lines are written. It began on the 13th of January, when 340,000 demonstrators took to the Paris streets to protest against new legislation on same-sex marriage. The two main umbrella organisations are Manif pour tous (Demo for all - as the government dubbed its same-sex marriage bill 'Le marriage pour tous') led by Virginie Merle aka Frigide Barjot, a self-proclaimed ‘press secretary for Jesus’, and Printemps français (French spring – Hollande being France’s Ben Ali, Mubarak or Gadhafi). While neither cites religion directly as a reason to oppose the bill, their leadership and public rhetoric leave no doubt. Printemps français’s main actors are proud ultra-Catholics, some with close links to the extreme right, whose views are certainly neither Republican nor secularistA survey in Le Monde showed that out of the 37 associations taking part in the Manif pour tous, 22 are ‘empty vessels’ and most of the others are linked to religious movements (mostly Christian).

The ‘Demo for all’ is therefore not for all, and excludes in the clearest possible manner all of those who are in favour of the law – if they are not part of the ‘all’, who are they and do they even deserve a voice? Yet, more worrying for French secularists, and contrary to the menace posed by high school pupils wearing religious clothing, these demonstrators have also managed to infiltrate the ranks of the French Assembly and have gained the support of some prominent figures.

For example, Christine Boutin, president of the Christian-Democrat party and former minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, declared that if the government does not offer ‘strong and symbolic measures – that is the withdrawal of the bill – it will blow up’. Boutin (who once declared, defending herself against claims of homophobia, that homosexuals were already free to marry in France, only not to people of the same sex) insinuated that violence would be justified if François Hollande did not renege on a campaign promise – a promise on which he was elected by over 18 million French citizens in what usually passes as a democratic election. In such a heated context, it is therefore not surprising that some parliamentarians have been threatened, that one Green MP found the tyres of her car slashed in front of her house, and that ‘anonymous’ homosexuals have increasingly been targeted by hate speech and even become victims of violent homophobic attacks.

In this context, where an anti-secular movement is growing and its message is given much more media attention than those who were forced to remove their religious signs in 2005, it is at best concerning to hear the deafening silence of all those who were up in arms to defend ‘la laïcité’ against a few high school students and, to their own secularist point of view, already oppressed women.

In all logic, if France is to be ruled by this exclusionary twenty-first century understanding of secularism, so prominent and consensual under the right-wing governments of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, only two conclusions to the anti-gay marriage movement can be considered coherent. First, the demonstrators, and particularly those within the National Assembly, who are ready to use violence to get their point across and whose motives are judged to be religious, should be punished by law, without being able to explain their reasons, the same way children were forced to silently accept neo-secularist rules or leave school after the 2005 law. In this type of secular France, a particular version of liberty would remain, since these demonstrators would be able to demonstrate at home, but would be banned from proselytising in a religion-free society. The other alternative – if marriage is indeed a Christian concept in France, or more broadly a religious one, it should be banned from public spaces and no longer be consecrated in French town halls.

A third solution would be to return to the origins of the 1905 law and to uphold its first article, to ‘ensure freedom of conscience [and] guarantee freedom of worship limited only by the following rules in the interest of public order’. It would then be interesting to find which of the two, children and teenagers wearing a piece of clothing, or demonstrators opposed to another group’s claims to equality under the law, would be considered to be acting against the ‘interest of public order’.

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