France’s distorted secularism: Laïcité

Laïcité has always been a major part of France’s political complexion. Here I look at how it’s being tugged about, amidst the incessant cross-fire of the presidential election.   

The English translation for laïcité is secularism. But the word is rarely translated because France’s laïcité is a unique form of secularism that doesn’t really exist outside of France. For many, France’s attachment to laïcité has become counter-productive. Instead of guaranteeing religious liberty to all citizens, laïcité has been accused of stigmatizing Muslims in France, and, under the guise of universal ideals, is exclusively targeting Islam. The reality is that laïcité is outdated. In a society where 60% of the population is non-practicing, one can ask why it dominates so much of the political discourse. And the legislation produced in its name, such as the banning of religious symbols in schools, or the proposed legislation against the headscarf, does more to exacerbate inter-cultural tensions, than it does to protect religious freedoms. So why isn’t it just done away with?

The answer is that French laïcité is about far more than just religious freedom. Laïcité is a founding principle of French Republicanism that was enshrined in law in 1905.  Yet its origins go further back still. Laïcité evokes the essence of French Republicanism as it was first conceived of by the civic nationalists of 18th century France. They believed that state authority stems from civic society, and not from a religiously ordained monarch, as was the case before.  France had lived under a Catholic monarchy whose whole conception of the state and the individual was radically different to civic nationalism. Monarchy was a patriarchal hierarchy, in which citizenship did not exist. There was no nation, only a king to which everyone was a subject. So when France became a republic, it ushered in a whole new conception of the state as a civic nation, and the individual as a citizen within it, while stripping religion of any authority.

Because of all this, French notions of statehood have always been intensely secular; authority comes from the people, not from God. That is why up to this day the institutions of state are void of any religious symbolism.  For the next century following the French Revolution, all these changes were challenged, and France went back and forth between republics, monarchies and a few Napoleons. But finally toward then end of the 19th century, they settled on republicanism.  So although the legal separation of Church and State didn’t occur till 1905, to understand why laïcité is such an important part of French identity, you need to go a little further back.

Apart from declaring a strict separation of church and state, laïcité, as set down in 1905, also promised total liberty of conscious to all French citizens. Laïcité was an open-ended freedom granted impartially. But this conception has now been joined by a more restrictive one. In 2004, France banned all religious symbols from state schools. While this applied to symbols of all religions, in practice, its major impact was on Muslim girls, banned from wearing the headscarf in school. Later in 2010, the government banned face-covering, and burqas in public places. These more recent developments have prompted restless debate about what laïcité really is. Can it really claim to provide religious freedom, if at the same it restricts the rights of certain citizens? Has laïcité become a means of preserving France’s traditional identity in the face of growing diversity?

The deep attachment French politicians profess towards the principles of French republicanism makes them unwilling to criticize laïcité. All affirm their sacred attachment to the principal. The question is how they interpret it.

Marine Le Pen’s position on laïcité is the most extreme. For her, laïcité is under threat from Islam infringing on public life. She proposes to extend the 2004 school ban to all public spaces. She also moans about how business owners, have no legal platform on which to prohibit religious practise from their business. Here’s a snippet of what she said in the first debate last week,

…we must accept the reality of rising Islamic fundamentalism…these incessant customs regarding food, clothing, are imposing themselves on public life…the republic recognizes no separate community within it…I want to establish laïcité all over..

Now this discourse is almost certainly nasty islamophobia masked behind a cherished but ambiguous ideal. But more interestingly, and not unique to the extreme right, the parameters concerning laïcité seem loosely defined.  Le Pen’s complaint about religion invading public life implies that a woman wearing a headscarf down a street represents a failure to separate church and state; because obviously a headscarf is a church, and the street equals a state. It’s nonsense. Really, laïcité is simply the name given to what is in fact a different issue altogether – cultural integration. For Le Pen, ‘establishing laïcité all over’, means enforcing a traditional French identity. It is more about cultural identity than religious freedom. The recent, mainly right-wing, proponents of restrictive laïcité, have in fact been mobilized by signs of cultural disharmony within French society. The reason laïcité finds itself in the middle of all this, is that the group in question seen to be causing this disharmony, are defined by their religion.

So laïcité isn’t simply about religion, but has as much to do with the thorny issue of cultural identity and integration. And it isn’t just the extreme right who use laictie to talk about something else. Let’s take Manuel Valls for example. Valls was Hollande’s Prime Minister up until a few months ago, when he resigned in order to run in the Socialist primary, which he lost. Valls discourse shows how laïcité is being dragged into the debate concerning cultural identity, and being used to promote a certain model, instead of being neutral.

…laïcité at that period (1905) was a law of harmony, a means of living together…but today the situation has changed and it is more than just a question of laïcité, but also the emancipation of women…today there is a political assertion surrounding the headscarf that seeks to enslave women and challenges the Republic. We must be able to legally respond to this challenge.

He refers to the growing influence of Salafism in certain neighbourhoods, to point out how the wearing of the headscarf is gradually becoming a political standard opposed to republican principles. And his whole line of argument appeals to the great tradition of laïcité, because he argues that it is in retreat. Yet in fact Valls is expanding the reach of laïcité, so that it can serve as a pretext to challenge a growing cultural custom that is foreign to republican identity. Laïcité has become more than just a bi-partisan shield that protects religious freedoms and neutrality. Instead it is now an offensive tool, used to beat back customs that supposedly threaten France’s republican identity.  By doing so, laïcité has lost its neutrality.

By defending a mostly western conception of feminism, in the name of laïcité, Valls is undermining the bi-partisan neutrality that laïcité is meant to enshrine. He fails to appreciate that in a heterogeneous society, feminism is not a homogenous conviction across the board. Instead he subscribes to a traditionally western viewpoint that perceives Islamic customs regarding women as inherently misogynistic.  And inherently is an important word here. Because while Valls will always validate his concerns by reference to rising fundamentalism, when pushed, he does, at bottom, hold the conviction that to wear a headscarf, even out of choice, and preach feminism, is a contradiction in terms. This is what he said to a headscarf wearing feminist,

you’ve made a choice and I respect it. But in the end, what is this idea; that the hair, the face, the body of a woman is indecent? I am part of a generation who fought against such ideas.

So even when facing someone wearing it out of choice, he persists with this discourse. With Valls, laïcité isn’t about individual choice, but more a discourse that promotes a western conception of women, and society in general. Religion isn’t the crux of the issue. Instead it boils down to cultural discord in a 21st century society.

Now Valls’ vanquisher in the Socialist primary, Benoit Hamon, takes a different line. He criticizes the tendency to use laïcité to enforce a certain model of society,

Laïcité is not a dogma. It is not a religion for those who do not have a religion. It is a means of living together…I am not one of these neo-conservatives who believe that a good Muslim is one who isn’t a Muslim…laïcité, I will say it again, is a question of liberty, of freedom of choice…the law of 1905, and nothing but the law of 1905.

So unlike Valls, Hamon sticks to the idea of laïcité as a law of liberty, and does not use it as a means of facing up to cultural issues. But his position has attracted strong criticism from the right. Hamon criticizes those politicians who use laïcité as a dogma, as a sort of state religion, and so Hamon seems sympathetic to those Muslims who feel persecuted. And for this he has been criticized as soft, unwilling to face up to the problems of cultural integration, and instead encouraging communautarisme (multiculturalism). A notable incident was a debate held between Hamon and Laurent Wauquiez, a prominent figure in the right-wing Republican Party. Wauquiez challenged Hamon’s position on laïcité, arguing that the socialist candidate grossly under-estimates the problem of integrating Islam into the republic.  He mentions the Sevran affair, where a woman was refused entry into a café because it was dominated by Muslim men, who had imposed a ban on women entering. He referred to a history teacher in Grenoble, who on a school trip had a group of his students refuse to enter a cathedral, because they said it went against their religious principles.

Now again, these issues are more about cultural integration than religious freedom, but the prescribed discourse in France seems incapable of talking about cultural integration without mentioning laïcité. As Wauquiez put it to Hamon,

Your (Hamon’s) vision of France would make concessions to communautarisme. My vision is that laïcité recedes no further…it’s up to Islam to adapt to the republic, not the other way round.

Like Valls, Wauquiez is inclined to see laïcité as threatened. By his interpretation, laïcité is about republican identity. But Hamon’s conception is totally different, and the Socialist candidate uses it to drown out concerns over cultural integration, and instead paints Wauquiez as the arch anti-republican. Instead of having an honest discussion about the problems of cultural integration, in terms of balancing homogeneity and pluralism, assimilation and multiculturalism, laïcité pokes its nose in, and Hamon picks up the baton of religious freedom, and with overblown rhetoric, condemns the Right for denying this freedom,

What you say profoundly shocks me. You’re attacking Islam. Islam is a religion, like Judaism or Catholicism. In our republic men and women have the right to their religious opinion and to live freely with them. You are arguing against this right, this fundamental pillar of our republic – the laws of 1905, laïcité. I consider laïcité the most important of our ideals. It guarantees our founding values of liberty, equality, fraternity.

The right often complains about how their concerns regarding multiculturalism are dismissed by the Left as Islamaphobic.  Yet Hamon uses another tool to shut down this debate, and that is the espousal of laïcité as freedom of religion. This is exactly what the above quote shows. This tool is made more effective by how the Right present the issue. When people like Wauquiez frame rising Islamic communautarisme, and receding laïcité as cause and effect, he is unintentionally reinforcing the impression, that for him, and others like him, laïcité is a ‘religion for those without religion’. When the twin issues are juxtaposed in such a way, laïcité no longer seems like a neutral guarantor of certain liberties, but just a certain model of society opposed to another.

And I think Hamon takes advantage of this impression. He uses laïcité as a rhetorical tool that, thanks to its sacred connotations, can get away with over- exaggerating the Right’s  supposed laxity toward the laws of 1905. Because for the most part, to suggest that the centre-Right want to abolish freedom of religion is pretty contestable.  They want a little more compromise from the Muslim community no doubt, but the compromises they seek do not amount to a total negation of religious freedom, as Hamon likes to suggest. The Right’s concerns over cultural integration have a validity that Hamon tries to ignore by escalating their respective differences regarding laïcité.

So discourse surrounding laïcité are clouding the issue of cultural integration in France. First, Le Pen is using laïcité to mask her Islamaphobic program. Valls, and the centre Right, are exploiting the inherent ambiguity of the term, in order to promote an offensive program of cultural protectionism under the guise of universal ideals. And thirdly, the Left emphasizes laïcité as a bi-partisan law of liberty. In doing so, they avoid facing up to the Rights’ concerns about cultural integration, and instead just take the easy way out by condemning the Right’s disregard for religious freedom.




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