Acknowledgement: The source of much of the information herein is from an article in the April/May issue of Free Inquiry magazine titled: “French Secularism: Agent Provocateur or Peacemaker?”
Laïcité (pronounced LIE-cite) is a word you may not know, unless you are knowledgeable about French culture and tradition. It is a French concept of secularism. It discourages religious involvement in government affairs, especially religious influence in the determination of state policies; it also forbids government involvement in religious affairs, and especially prohibits government influence in the choice of religion (or no religion) by its citizens. The term was first used with this meaning in 1871 in the dispute over the removal of religious teachers and instruction from elementary schools, but the word laïcisme dates to 1842. In its strict and official acceptance, it is the principle of separation of church (or religion) and state. French secularism has a long history. For the last century, the French government policy has been based on the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State.
The growing Muslim population in France has challenged French secularism. Muslim inspired violence against individuals who “insult” their religion has resulted in a series of terrorist atrocities that have inflamed anger and confrontation in French society. The beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty by a Chechen-born teenager hit France particularly hard and, again, brought to the fore the long-running debate on “French values” and the place of Muslims in the French Republic. An attack several weeks later on a church in Nice, in which three people were killed, further inflamed tensions in the country. Both incidents appeared to have been inspired by the controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons and occurred amid the trial of fourteen accused accomplices in the attack on the magazine’s offices in 2015. In the past eight years, there have been thirty-six incidents in France, the deadliest being the Paris attacks of 2015, which killed 130 in a series of coordinated strikes. It is against this backdrop that each new assault brings familiar questions about the relationship of French Muslims and the French State.
The French government is cracking down. It closed a Paris mosque that was suspected of inciting hatred, and expelled and imprisoned hundreds of suspected foreign extremists.
These actions provoked demonstrations in several Muslim-majority countries. Turkey’s President, Tayyip Erdodogan described French President Emmanuel Macron and the French government as having an “anti-Islam agenda,” and called for a boycott of French products. At least 50,000 people participated in an anti-France rally in Bangladesh. Malaysia’s former prime minister asserted that “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.” Demagogues never miss an opportunity to inflame the masses in the pursuit of political power, as we have observed in the US over the past four years.
Given that France is a predominantly Catholic country, I found it curious that they have a history of secular government. It dates back to 1905, when a law separating the Church and the State was introduced officially to counter the influence of the Catholic Church. Even so, many of the country’s public holidays still correspond with Catholic rituals. The growth of the Islamic population in France, now roughly 10%, has increased tensions, not only with the Catholic church, but also with the principle of laïcité, and its focus on religious neutrality in the public space.
In 2004, France banned all “conspicuous” religious symbols in public institutions, and although this also included the Sikh turban and Jewish kippah, (yarmulke) along with the Muslim headscarf, many believed that it was aimed predominantly at Muslim women and targeted them disproportionately. In 2011, France became the first European country to ban face-covering Muslim veils. This was followed in 2016 by a burkini ban. These overt displays of faith are viewed as a threat to the French Republic and the country’s values. Former right-wing French President Nicholas Sarkozy described the wearing of a burkini as “a political act” and “a provocation.”
Some critics of laïcité charge that it is being used as a pretext to justify discrimination against Muslims. French Muslims feel increasingly marginalized and disenfranchised. They are represented disproportionately within the prison population, and poverty and unemployment are rampant in France’s banlieues (Paris suburbs) where many of them live.
Traditionalists and defenders of laïcité believe the term has been misunderstood and misappropriated. They point, instead, to both its protection of religious minorities and those with no religion, alongside the primacy of the citizen over religious affiliation. This inclusiveness is the very essence of secularism. For supporters, a strict application of secularism is necessary to uphold the Republic’s secular values and ensure that religion is kept in the private sphere, and support for a robust form of secularism extends to most of the population. A 2013 government plan to introduce the teaching of “secular morals” in State schools was supported by 91 percent of the public.[i]
Going forward, France has the option of making concessions and accommodating religion in public life in a more flexible way. However, a continued hardening of tone from President Macron is more likely as he looks ahead to next year’s election in the face of an increasingly resurgent Front National. Meanwhile, the threat from Islamist extremism shows no sign of abating anytime soon.
The similarity of laïcité to the Establishment Clause in the US Constitution is obvious, but so far the US has not experienced the upheaval that France is suffering, although there was some violence against Muslim-Americans after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. As of 2020, Muslims were only about 1% of the US population. If that were to increase to 10%, would we face the same problems?
[i] “Huge Support in France for Teaching of ‘Secular Morals’ in State Schools.” National Secular Society, April 26, 2013. https://www.secularism.org.uk/write-to-your-mp.html.