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France - Laicite

The French version of secularism is laïcité. France was the first country in Europe to ban face veils from public space. Americans are often baffled by France's general indifference to religion and laws forbidding religious symbols in public schools, full-face veils in public places, and even the interdiction of burkinis on French beaches. The French government has not been a neutral referee in the fight between secularism and religious expression, and controversial decisions like the French headscarf ban have endeavored to solidify a secular foundation in the public square, arguably at the expense of religious expression.

The French Constitution's first article states: "France shall be an indivisible, laic, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs. It shall be organized on a decentralized basis."

On October 2, when Emmanuel Macron announced a new law against ‘Islamic separatism’, opining that Islam ‘is in crisis all over the world today’. Many Muslims across the world vented their anger at Macron's defense of cartoons derogatory of the Prophet Muhammad published by the magazine Charlie Hebdo. Macron’s biggest detractor was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Macron had hitched his wagons firmly to the UAE-Saudi axis that pits itself not against ‘Islamic extremism’, forces that believe in what can be described as Islamic democracy, including many groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, because they endorse moderate democratic reformism with Islamic values.

The AK Party represented something of a model for these forces, while Turkey under the governance of the AK Party has for its own reasons supported democratic forces in the Arab spring era. Laicity, one of the founding principles of the Republic of Turkey, had been a topic intensely debated for decades in the country. Turkey's own secular model laiklik was not aimed at the separation of religion and state but first to control it and finally to try to minimize it. But the unintelligible concept of laicity was one of the most important causes of exacerbating religious and racial tensions rather than enhancing social harmony. A public ban on Islamic headscarves meant some women were excluded from many areas, including education, business and politics. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) reversed this militant characteristic of laicity. In direct opposition to the Republican understanding of laicité, the AK Party posited democracy as a concept and religiosity as an identity.

The term laity (Latin laicus, lay) signifies the aggregation of those Christians who do not form part of the clergy. Consequently the word lay does not strictly connote any idea of hostility towards the clergy or the Church much less towards religion. Laicization, therefore, considered etymologically, simply means the reducing of persons or things having an ecclesiastical character to a lay condition.

But in recent times, especially in France, the word lay has assumed a decidedly anti-clerical and even anti-religious meaning, which has extended also to the derivatives laicize and laicization. This change seems to have originated in the struggles and controversies, at once religious and political, that had arisen in that country in connection with the educational question; teachers belonging to religious congregations (congréganistes) had been driven from the public schools; all religious instruction has been forbidden therein, and this new lay character (laïcité) of the public school has been declared to be essential and inviolable. The expression, once current, has received a formidable extension and an aggressive anti-religious meaning applied to everything relating, whether more or less remotely, to the Catholic Church and even to religion in general.

So it is usual to designate as "laicized" any institution withdrawn from the influence of ecclesiastical or religious authority, or from which the priest and his ministry have been excluded. A "lay" school, therefore, is one in which, not only is no place found for the catechism or the priest, but wherein the instruction given ignores all religion and God himself; "lay" legislation is that which is inspired by no religious idea, which looks on society as atheistic, and reduces religious worship to the purely voluntary acts of individuals; finally, the "lay" State, or Government, is one that recognizes no Church, no religion, and which excludes even the name of God from all its institutions or establishments, and from all its acts. An attempt has been made to set up a "lay" morality, i.e. a moral code independent of all revealed religion, as if Christian morality were aught else than the dictates of natural law; while some think they can establish a rationalistic morality without religion and without a Deity, without a future life.

To laicize, then, is to give this lay character to whatever had not previously had it—or, at least, not entirely. It is to exclude religion from entering in any manner into the life of society as such. In this way education, the courts of justice, the army, the navy, the hospitals — in a word all activities under the control of the public authorities have been laicized in France. Laicization is the externalization and product of the rationalistic, anti-Catholic, and anti-religious movement. It is evident, therefore, that laicization thus understood, goes far beyond "equality", by which the State recognizes equal rights as possessed by various confessions or religions; it is much more than "neutrality", the attitude adopted by the state in its dealings with the divers confessions to which its citizens belong; it is something quite different from "separation", by which the concordats existing between the two powers are dissolved, and the official character of the Church, as hitherto recognized by the State, abolished. In addition to all this, the "laicization" of which we are speaking implies the negation of all religion in matters concerning temporal society; it is the ultimate outcome of absolute Rationalism applied to social life as such.

Looked at historically, laicization was the final outcome of what was formerly called "secularization", i.e., the hostile action of the secular power, which had successively despoiled the Church of the prerogatives she enjoyed in European society as moulded by the influence of Christianity for centuries. It is true that all the European nations have not moved with equal rapidity in this matter, and that they are far from having all arrived at the same point in their evolution towards complete secularization. Moreover, it must be recognized that this movement, hastened, in so far as concerns the Catholic religion, by the Reformation, has been retarded and partially eliminated in non-Catholic countries—where the civil power already possesses more or less complete influence, if not authority, over religion — whilst in Catholic countries it is in presence of an independent religious authority which it even accuses at times of being foreign.

But abstracted from local differences, the main lines of this secularizing movement, as yet incomplete, are clearly all the nations of the Christian world. It is advancing towards two not disconnected results: first, it is marking off more and more distinctly the spheres of action of the two powers, "the spiritual and the temporal", as the Gallicans formerly said; secondly, the secular power, while it frees itself from the influence of the spiritual power, confines the latter to a purely religious domain, depriving it gradually of the privileges it enjoyed in the Christian societies of the Middle Ages.

France has the largest Islamic population in Europe (~5.7 million) and one of the largest percentages of total population (~8.8 percent), along with Sweden, Bulgaria, and Cyprus. While the Arab Spring and associated conflict in the Middle East have triggered a significant influx of migrants into the country, France has been a destination for immigrants from its former colonies like Morocco and Algeria since the second half of the twentieth century. While many issues regarding radicalization stem from migration stretching back decades, the rapid increase in immigrants from war-torn areas, combined with prevalent Islamist extremism, presents extremely serious issues for the French government.

French Muslims have historically suffered poor socioeconomic conditions as compared to other groups, with higher rates of unemployment, gentrification and ghettoized living spaces, and increasing Islamophobia and discrimination. This is a distinct phenomenon even culturally, where the French word for suburbs, banlieue, is understood to be used only with negative connotations because of their poor living conditions and large, visible Muslim populations. Muslims constitute 8.5 percent in the 18–24-year age demographic in France but account for 39.9 percent of all prisoners in that age cohort. But poor socioeconomic conditions alone cannot explain patterns of radicalization in countries like France.

Ironically, the French government’s strict adherence to secularism, called laïcité, bolstered the role of mosques in radicalization. The strict separation of church and state leads to the government’s inability to play a role in the funding or running of religious institutions. This has resulted in funds and training originating from countries such as Algeria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, with a report claiming that 70 percent of the imams preaching in French mosques are not French nationals and are trained and paid only by their country of origin.

The American notion of “being secular” has no easy translation in the French language and context. Pluralism means that differing ethical and moral views are to be protected insofar as they are non-violent. Part of the difficulty stems from the ambivalence of the use of the term secular. The reality of laïcité is clearly legal, because, after all the debates, parliament by passing laws and the courts by applying the laws and through jurisprudence define what is required of citizens: laïcité is known through the law.

The horrific murder of history teacher Samuel Paty in October 2020 reignited a longstanding debate on the application of France’s cherished secular principle of "laïcité". Like the January 2015 attacks on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, which targeted freedom of expression and religion, Friday’s killing in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine struck at the core values of the French Republic. It was allegedly motivated by a class on ethics and civic values, during which Paty showed and discussed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published by Charlie Hebdo. The class angered at least one Muslim parent who instigated a hate campaign against the teacher, with fatal consequences. Paty’s beheading by an 18-year-old Islamist radical carries a particularly sinister resonance. In the words of President Emmanuel Macron, the teacher was targeted because he “embodied the Republic”, because he “taught pupils to become citizens” and “fought for freedom and reason”.

The core principle of laicite is loosely translated as state secularism. The fact that adjectives – such as hard, soft, open or closed – are being tagged onto the concept of laïcité is itself problematic. There is no legal definition of laïcité, not even in the landmark 1905 legislation separating church and state, which is frequently described as “enshrining” the principle of French secularism. The 1905 law offers a legal framework in which citizens can exercise their right to believe or not to believe in the religion of their choice. It defines the role of the Republic as guarantor of these rights – so long as they do not violate public order.

The concept of laïcité was created in France in 1905 as a clerically hostile form of “freedom of the state from religion.” The driving spirit of separation of church and state in France had its origins in the French Revolution's struggles. The Church during this period supported anti-revolutionary and reactionary political forces. This created hostility towards the Church and brought about huge popular support for anticlericalism.

French secularism is the product of a process, stretching over several decades, in which a series of liberal laws and rules gradually established the preeminence of the secular state over the Catholic Church in public life, from education to marriage and civil rights. Back then, legislators probably thought it was more prudent not to establish a legal definition of laïcité. Today, however, the lack of such a definition paves the way for all sorts of interpretations, some of them clearly abusive. Surveys have repeatedly shown that large segments of the French public have only a vague understanding of laïcité.

The report of the Stasi Commission on laïcité on 11 December 2003 and the following legislation on the donning of religious symbols in French public schools spurred debates over the meanings and practices of laïcité. The report and the law have been interpreted in different ways. Some have presented them as a reaffirmation of a historically constituted laïcité under new circumstances, others as a divergence from the real problems of racism, unemployment and gender inequality.

The Stasi Commission was contemporaneous with key gestures of multiculturalism: the establishment of the French Muslim Council and the creation of Muslim high schools under contract with the French state. This double movement to narrow the boundaries of laïcité, and for the state to expand the boundaries of identity-specific, Muslim public institutions and private schooling constitutes a reorganization of the public sphere in France which qualifies as a move towards multiculturalism.

Rival understandings of French secularism disagree on how far the French state should go in asserting religious neutrality in the public sphere. At the heart of the storm is the Observatoire de la laïcité (Observatory of Secularism), an agency designed to help the government enforce laïcité in France. According to officials, by 2020 the government was planning to change the composition and mission of the Observatory, to bring it more in line with the strategy of combating Islamist separatism on French soil. Critics of the Observatory have accused its leaders of being more concerned with tackling the stigmatisation of Muslims than defending French secularism.

The body abides by a “legal” interpretation of secularism, as opposed to an “ideological” one. The Observatory sticks to the law, which does not mean that everything and anything is allowed. The law already contains the tools to prosecute those who seek to limit the freedom of others.

The Observatory of Secularism was the origin of the circular "against Islamism and for secularism" of February 2020; and several of its recommendations were echoed in the 02 October 2020 speech by the President of The Republic on the bill to be introduced on 9 December. It is also the Observatory of the secularism that led to the repeal of the crime of blasphemy that remained in Alsace-Moselle, or the obligation for detached imams and chaplains to be trained in secularism.

Should the French state adopt an “ideological” version of secularism as opposed to a strictly legal one, Bouzar added, it would soon find itself at odds with the European Court of Human Rights, which closely monitors the religious freedoms of individuals in EU member states. In recent years, cases of French officials offering very strict interpretations of secular rules have resulted in vitriolic debates – and sometimes public embarrassment.

Rules on laïcité require the strict neutrality of state employees and public servants, but not of the general public. Between September 2019 and March 2020, French schools recorded more than 900 “violations of secularism”, according to data published by the Education Ministry. They included cases of pupils contesting their teachers and parents refusing to send their daughters to swimming classes. The ministry, which began recording cases only three years ago, said the overall number had remained relatively stable.

Contrary to what is often said, secular education is not obligatory in France, it is school that is obligatory. There is no ban on religious signs in denominational (religious) schools, which are also financed by the French state.

Unregistered schools that deviate from the national curriculum are among the targets of a plan to fight “Islamist separatism”, which President Macron unveiled in October 2020 in a keynote speech delivered in the impoverished suburb of Les Mureaux, not far from Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. The French president said home-schooling would be severely restricted to avoid children being "indoctrinated". Macron said “The problem is an ideology which claims its own laws should be superior to those of the Republic”. He stressed that he was referring to “radical Islamism” and not Muslims in general, though he also argued that Islam was “in crisis everywhere in the world”. He went on to call for the establishment of an “Islam of the Englightenment”, becoming the latest French leader to attempt to structure Islam in France – a curiously frequent occurence in a state that is supposed not to interfere with religious matters.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2020 13:32:56 ZULU