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French secularism as failed social engineering

The principle of laïcité has become a demagogic tool to reinforce narrow judgements about French identity and discriminate against minorities. 

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Following the Charlie Hebdo shootings in which twelve members of the satirical magazine’s staff were murdered by Islamist gunmen on 11 January 2015, a range of controversies shook France that revived the national debate on “laïcité” (the French term for “secularism”) and its increasing entanglement with Islamophobia.

The case of a Muslim secondary school student who was denied entry to school in Charleville-Mézières in northeastern France on 16 and 25 April 2015 because her skirt was ‘too long’—and therefore in violation of France’s ban on ‘conspicuous  religious symbols’—is symptomatic of these controversies. In order to denounce what he saw as ideological excesses in the name of laïcité, the French historian and sociologist Emmanuel Todd released a new book called Qui est Charlie ? Sociologie d’une crise religieuse, which sparked outrage in a number of news outlets. An article in Le Figaro, for example, called him a “false prophet.”

Todd’s argument is that the mass protests in support of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 didn’t constitute a call for tolerance, but rather highlighted asymmetric structures of power that target ethnic and religious minorities. The magazine’s right to freedom of expression, and public support following the shootings, were not the targets of his criticism. Instead, Todd focused on the atmosphere of forced consensus which surrounded the “Je suis Charlie” movement in the aftermath of the killings, calling it a “totalitarian flash” in which dissenting voices were eliminated from the public sphere.

As a stark example of this process, an eight-year-old boy was interrogated by French police on 28 January 2015 as a result of his refusal to take part in a minute’s silence honouring the victims of the shootings, because of his opposition to cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo that depicted the Prophet Muhammad. In his book, Todd describes the cumulative effect of this form of laïcité in terms of mounting Islamophobia.

The legal framework that has shaped French secularism has evolved throughout the twentieth century. In 1905, a new law was passed to enshrine the separation of church and state, freedom of religious beliefs, and the neutrality of the state on religious matters. Religious freedom was reasserted in the 1958 Constitution, so long as its practice did not ‘disrupt the public order.’ In 1989, the French State Council ruled that the wearing of religious symbols in schools was not incompatible with the principle of laïcité and was therefore tolerated, on condition that it did not contravene existing prohibitions on proselytising.

Crucially, these interpretations were inclusive of religious individuals and their freedom to display their faith publicly. But under the recent ban on religious symbols, French secularism has come to signify the exclusion of some groups from the nation and from French identity as a result of their religious beliefs and customs.

From a conceptual viewpoint, contemporary debates surrounding laïcité argue that public and private spaces are separate and stand in opposition to one another. Religion should be a solely private matter because individuality lies within the private sphere. By contrast, the public sphere is reserved for the collective body of the nation, and provides a mechanism for generating a collective sense of citizenship that reinforces social and cultural ties.

This privatised understanding of religious beliefs and practices is what political scientist Ahmet Kuru calls “assertive secularism” (or laïcité de combat as it is practiced in France), as opposed to a “passive secularism” (or laïcité plurielle) which allows for the public expression of one’s religion—as in the USA. But the binary distinction between ‘individuals’ and ‘citizens’ is too rigid, since people do not and should not cease to be citizens within the space of their own homes, or cease to be individuals in all respects when they are citizens. By opting for assertive secularism, the French state intends to shape the minds and behaviour of its citizens according to an ideology of its own making.

In this context, the 2004 law “concerning…the wearing of symbols or clothing which display a religious affiliation in public schools”—or what is widely known as the ‘headscarf ban’—is a natural offshoot of such a restrictive ideology. Established following a report by the Stasi Commission that was appointed by President Jacques Chirac in 2003, the law aimed to ban all ‘conspicuous religious symbols’ in public schools, and supposedly encompasses all religions. But the main issue to be resolved was the wearing of headscarves, thereby directly targeting France’s Muslim communities and women within them.

Remarkably, only six of the twenty members of the Commission were women, and most of the people interviewed were school headmasters who unanimously supported a total ban on headscarves. The Commission didn’t seek out dissenting voices such as parents or Muslim interlocutors, and didn’t proceed to an extended qualitative analysis of the interviewees’ accounts. This is partly explained by the political climate in France at the time which pressured the Commission into adopting an assertive secularist approach—as Jean Baubérot (the only member who abstained from voting for the controversial proposal) confirmed in an article written for the journal French Politics, Culture and Society. Moreover, the Commission also proposed to ban conspicuous political symbols, but this was dismissed by the French Parliament.

The new law officially purported to reinforce social cohesion by protecting society from being contaminated by ‘anti-French values’ i.e. anything that deviated from the principle of laïcité. Following this rationale, religious symbols are markers that set certain citizens apart from the rest of society, and therefore need to be erased from the public sphere, including schools. But in practice it marks a distinction between the different faiths of French citizens and the public visibility of specific religious symbols. It is not accidental that the law came to be known as the ‘headscarf ban:’ the primary targets have been ethnic and religious minorities rather than students belonging to the majority population whose identity is overwhelmingly represented in the policies of the French state.

French secularism therefore serves as a seemingly legitimate instrument for the state to enact policies and value judgements that are discriminatory towards a targeted population under the pretence of neutrality. At the macro level, these policies contradict the right to religious freedom that is enshrined in law, and consequently the self-definition of France as a liberal state that protects human rights and is bound to “respect all beliefs” as stated in the first article of the 1958 Constitution.

At the micro level, these discriminatory policies target Muslim communities that are constantly accused of proselytisation, violence and favouring minority interests by French politicians and in the media. The principle of laïcité, which purports to enhance social cohesion, has become a demagogic tool to reinforce certain normative judgements about French identity. Paradoxically, secularism is now equated with discrimination and state neutrality with being partial.

In his analysis of laïcité, Todd argues that “zombie Catholicism” is responsible for the discriminatory application of secularism in a country that is becoming less and less Catholic over time. But he overlooks the history of France’s social, political and cultural domination over its Muslim population, starting from the colonisation of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria and ending up in urban policies that ghettoise these communities inside French cities. This ongoing culture of domination results in asymmetric power dynamics that perpetuate the marginalisation of ethnic and religious minorities, especially as regards the normative identity that the French state wants to shape.

This is evidenced by the failure of laïcité to reinforce social cohesion and a sense of shared citizenship in French society. Instead, the public sphere has become a battleground for the assertion of divergent identities, precisely because the policies enacted in the name of secularism have polarised the population.

Accusations of proselytisation by Muslim communities portray the problem as cultural and religious, when in fact it is rooted in social and economic disenfranchisement. So long as the French authorities turn a blind eye to the real issues at stake, they will continue to use a highly-ideological interpretation of secularism to gain the support of the majority of the population and to justify discriminatory policies against minorities. 

About the author

Syreen Forest holds an MSc in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). She has worked with non-profit organisations focused on the MENA region. Find her on Twitter @SyreenForest.


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